Duane’s absence leaves Boks delicate

Duane Vermeulen (Gallo Images)
Duane Vermeulen (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - The omission of Duane Vermeulen, tailor-made for European conditions, from the Springbok end-of-year tour raises at least two uncomfortable possibilities.

One is naturally that the Boks, deprived of his formidable “go-forward” potential on the slow pitches during November, will feel it and come to rue it in the successive Tests against England, Italy and Wales.

Another is the inevitable speculation that may arise now that the uncompromising 30-year-old - one of few proven world-class competitors in the iffy, transitional South African landscape - is seeing a door progressively creak shut on him at international level after only 37 Test matches.

Vermeulen began his Test career later than many critics would have liked in 2012: the danger exists, it seems, that it could also end with premature haste.

It is true that the former Stormers No 8 underwhelmed, an unusual hallmark for him, in two appearances in the tense June series against Ireland.

But that was also roughly at completion of his gruelling northern hemisphere season with Toulon, when he would have been prey to fatigue and also gave the impression that he was carrying a niggle or two.

He later picked up a serious knee injury with the French outfit and only recently returned to competitive action - that, though, seemed a fairly reassuring precursor to a crack at returning to past, blood-and-thunder standards by him in the green and gold jersey over the next few weeks.

The official line spun when national coach Allister Coetzee unveiled his squad of 33 on Saturday for the main portion of the tour - after the Barbarians “warm-up” opportunity with an experimental group outside the international window on November 5 - was that Vermeulen’s conditioning “after discussions” was not deemed up to Test standard since his return from the injured list in France.

Also, the anticipated birth of his second child during the period had been taken into account.

It is possible I am reading more into Vermeulen’s non-selection than is justified, but after sufficient speculation in the SA media that his known qualities would be too attractive to overlook, his eventual cold-shouldering somehow appears not unattached to his slightly bleak, dissident take on the state of the Bok game after the Durban thrashing from the All Blacks recently.

The 115kg ironman was quoted as saying he couldn’t “see a positive outcome” to the national team’s troubles soon, and that they needed a tangible “intervention”.

He also sounded suitably cynical about the much-publicised Springbok Indaba in Cape Town earlier this week, questioning whether it would achieve its objectives.

Has Vermeulen reached a position where he is regarded in the same dim light as Frans Steyn, the single-minded utility back and RWC 2007 winner who has had several brushes with SARU/Springbok bosses and hasn’t been seen in Test colours since Dunedin (against New Zealand) in September 2012?

Still only 29, the burly, mercurial backline character has - almost needless to say - again been overlooked for this particular tour to remain on 53 dust-gathering caps.

Even if at less than optimal fitness, Vermeulen would quite feasibly have been able to give the Boks, who have struggled for sustained front-foot status all season, 40 or 50 minutes of invaluable grunt in key clashes on the venture - Twickenham on November 12 is the blue-chip game - before making way for some speedier, probably much lighter limbs off the bench.

He is also a “fetching” ace in his unique, tough-wrestling manner at breakdowns and South Africa are not too mightily served with specialist open-side flankers right now, given the injury-enforced absence of Bath’s Francois Louw.

Jaco Kriel is likely to assume the No 6 jersey for the Tests, but he is more renowned for his run-around exploits in open play, whilst there is a complete rookie back-up poacher now in the shape of the Blue Bulls’ Roelof Smit – at least the latter is content to ply his trade mostly at close quarters.

No Vermeulen also means the Boks are notably short on specialist No 8s, with only the rangy Warren Whiteley to summon if they want a player wholly familiar to the role there.

Lions skipper Whiteley is an industrious tackler and linking, running factor but it is more difficult for him to batter holes or commit defenders via brute strength, an area Vermeulen specialises in.

Still, if the Boks happen to run into a quagmire somewhere along the line and it is felt heavyweight ballast is best required in their starting eighthman, then versatile Willem “Bone Collector” Alberts is worth considering, even if blindside flank is generally his best role.

It’s difficult to escape a feeling that the happiest people about Vermeulen’s no-go on the Euro winter adventure, however, will be the playing and coaching personnel of the English, Italian and Welsh national teams ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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