Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, marquee Bulls signing DUANE VERMEULEN talks about returning to South African rugby, how he rates Siya Kolisi's captaincy and the north-south derby at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.
Sport24 asked: How does it feel to be back in South African rugby?
Duane Vermeulen: It’s great to be back in South Africa and it’s not just about the rugby. It’s lekker to be home and spend more time with my young family. My wife and two boys are staying in Cape Town, while I’m based in Pretoria with the Bulls. My wife Ezel has her own dance business in Cape Town and last year we registered the kids for school in the Mother City. I’m commuting between Pretoria and Cape Town. It’s not ideal that we aren’t living together in the same city, but I’d much rather take a two-hour flight than a 21-hour flight from Japan to see my family. I played less rugby in Japan. It was important to refresh the body and mind heading into Super Rugby and a World Cup year. Before then I had a great time at Toulon and played in two finals. It was good fun and I really enjoyed it on and off the field. However, I played a lot of games and it was really tough on the body. In terms of my time at the Bulls so far, with whom I have only signed a Super Rugby contract, I have found a young and exciting playing group. It’s a good bunch of guys and there are some standout leaders in the group. Hopefully, with myself and Schalk Brits now at the franchise we can bring more maturity to the group and help out in difficult times. The biggest thing is to develop a more mature group and get the guys thinking and working in one direction. In terms of defence (an area for which Vermeulen is highly regarded) I’m working with coach Pine Pienaar and Jesse Kriel in terms of running the defence here. It’s a label which has stuck with me almost since I started my career, but defence is an aspect that I really enjoy. Having a specific role is an easy way to slot into a new team.
Sport24 asked: How would you assess the state of Springbok rugby?
Duane Vermeulen: When I spoke out in the media in 2016, the Springboks were going through tough times. However, you can’t always put it down to coaches and I’m not going to point fingers. Back then (during Allister Coetzee’s first year in charge of the national team) it was a young group and the players have since matured. In sport, you can mature a helluva lot in one year and not just by winning – you can learn so much from defeat. I think the guys learned a lot from the difficult times and when I joined the Boks last year for the incoming series and end-of-year tour, I could definitely see that there was more maturity to the group. The guys have grown quite a lot since when I joined them at the end of 2016. There is more of a voice from the players now (under the guidance of Rassie Erasmus), but it’s a controlled voice. You can’t really open the floor up to everyone otherwise you create chaos. There are some spots where the guys get assigned specific roles in the squad. Those are the players that really need to report back to the coaches and also need to speak up in front of the team if there is something to talk about. A lot of the guys in the Springbok team have their roles and it’s easy to go to those guys and address issues when necessary.
Sport24 asked: How has Siya Kolisi transformed into a leader of men?
Duane Vermeulen: When I played for the Stormers, Siya was a youngster coming through the ranks. He has grown so much over the past few seasons as a player and captain. He has evolved as a leader at the Stormers and also with the Springboks. I know that there have been some weird comments on social media regarding the leadership and there have been occasions where people think you are undermining his captaincy. (During the end-of-year Test against Wales in 2018, Vermeulen was seen communicating with Rassie Erasmus via a headset, which some supporters interpreted as a slight on Kolisi’s captaincy). Rassie chatted to me (mid-match) to check on an injury as I had dislocated my shoulder in the first half… In terms of leadership and decision-making, there is a plan to what we do on the pitch and not everyone has to know what we are doing. There are certain areas in which Siya takes charge and there are different areas where other guys in the team take the lead. When you have to make decisions in terms of going for the three points or to touch, sometimes Siya will ask what the senior players think. There are times when it’s a group decision and it’s good to have someone on your shoulder that can assist you when you are not thinking clearly enough or you’re tired. To give an example, I remember when we played against England in 2012 and their captain Chris Robshaw went for posts rather than touch and we beat them by a point. Post-match, there was this big thing in the media about why Robshaw didn’t go for touch. As such, we help each other out on the field and decide collectively whether or not it’s a good call. Siya has really grown from a leadership perspective and it will be great to see how he will lead the national team going forward.
Sport24 asked: Your thoughts on Pieter-Steph du Toit’s award?
Duane Vermeulen: I feel Pieter-Steph is a fantastic choice for SA Rugby Player of the Year. He was the standout player during the 2018 season. This past year, he has shown that he is definitely the guy to fill that No 7 jersey for South Africa. I really think he is world-class loose forward and he has played some of his best rugby in that position. I know some people like him at No.5, but he is a phenomenal player with a massive physical presence and has a big engine on him. It’s fantastic playing with rather than against him because he gets you go-forward. We have a good understanding, especially when it comes to line-out play and we work well together. He’s a phenomenal guy and fantastic player. I’d like to say massive congrats to him for winning the award.
Sport24 asked: How much longer will you play Test rugby for?
Duane Vermeulen: So long as I can still contribute on the pitch, I will play for as long as I can. For me, age is just a number (Vermeulen is 32 and has played 46 Tests) and there have been examples of guys who carried on until they were 40 and still played fantastic rugby. If I can contribute then surely I’m going to keep on playing. I love pulling that green jersey over my head and contributing for my country. As a youngster, your first dream is to become a Springbok. It doesn’t matter what you do and where you play to become a Springbok. It’s just that you want to be a Springbok. I still want to represent my country and that is the bigger picture I need to look at. I don’t mind where I play as long as I can contribute and have fun. If I get an opportunity, I will try to keep making the most of it. I have grown in certain areas and my approach to the game has changed a bit in terms of the way I think on the pitch and strategize. I have matured quite a lot from that perspective, but I’m still the same old player who wants to carry ball, tackle guys and get over the advantage line. My heart is still there and I will give my all in everything that I do… I’m looking forward to the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan because the competition is actually pretty interesting this year. I really think it’s the first time in I don’t know how many years that there is not a specific favourite to win the World Cup. That makes it really exciting for the whole world, but it’s also dangerous because if you don’t lift your standards you are out. I think there are eight teams that can win this World Cup on their day. In terms of facing the All Blacks in our opening game, it’s a good thing to test yourself and see where you are at. The guys have shown during the past couple of matches what we can do. When we don’t perform to our potential, it’s sometimes down to a lack of concentration and not executing the plan correctly. We’re working in a good direction, know what we want to achieve and just have to do it.
Sport24 asked: Your sentiments ahead of the north-south derby?
Duane Vermeulen: It’s great to be back playing in local derbies. It’s an unfamiliar kit and a different team, but it’s still the same old guy who loves the game of rugby. Facing my former team, the Stormers, at Loftus in our opening Super Rugby game on Saturday is going to be difficult, but we are not going to stand down. We are going to hold our ground and give it our best... It was great to play my first game back in South Africa at Cape Town Stadium with such a great vibe. The Superhero Sunday double-header was a fantastic initiative by SA Rugby and SuperSport. Introducing the Marvel theme for the local South African derbies brings so much excitement to the game. On the day, my sons were kitted out in Captain America costumes and my family was supporting us all the way. It was a fantastic atmosphere in Cape Town, even if I heard a few boos here and there from some Stormers supporters. That is part of the game and, as a player, you have still got to stay focused and play your game. As far as the rematch at Loftus Versfeld goes, all I can say is may the best team win!
Sport24 asked: Who would be your dream dinner guests and why?
Duane Vermeulen: On a sporting front, I would invite Danie Craven if he was still alive. I would like to know what made him do the things he did back in his day and how he saw the sport evolving in South Africa. From a political point of view, I would extend an invitation to US President Donald Trump for the interesting things we could talk about and how active he is on Twitter. And from the world of entertainment, the late Freddie Mercury would make my guest list. I recently watched Bohemian Rhapsody and Mercury would be a good guy as the entertainer for the evening. It would also be interesting to find out what the hell went on in his head to write the songs that he did. For dinner, I would serve my guests braaivleis and pap and pair it with ice-cold beer in this Pretoria heat.