Duane Vermeulen. Say those two words and you come over all warm and fuzzy. There is a sense of comfort in them because when Duane Vermeulen plays for the Springboks, everything is good with the world.
In fact, he’s become so iconic that simply ‘Duane’ will do. Everybody knows who you mean. It’s like saying ‘Richie’ or ‘Dan’, or ‘Sonny Bill’. No surnames needed.
Duane is one of those rare players whose performance seems to improve with every tier he climbs in the sport. At provincial and club standard he is excellent, but at Test level, when the stakes are at their highest, he takes his game to another planet.
The first two Tests against England were prime examples of his supreme ability to find that something extra in the white-hot heat of a Test battle, and come out on top.
Think of his performance against the All Blacks at Ellis Park in 2014, when he dominated playing with broken ribs. Or the break off the back of the scrum, taking two defenders with him, to set Fourie du Preez away for the winning try in the 2015 World Cup quarter-final against Wales.
Despite only having 41 caps, Duane is a huge asset to the Bok team. The Boks have won 73% of the Tests he’s featured in, which is nearly 10% higher than SA’s traditional winning average.
Duane has nothing left to prove at Test level. When he’s fit and hungry, he’s the best, most dominant No 8 in South Africa and the world. Only Kieran Read at his best compares.
The news that Duane is likely to play club rugby in Japan later this year, now that his contract with French club Toulon has come to an end, is no surprise. But there was an understandable and predictable gnashing of teeth.
It means he won’t be available for the entire Rugby Championship. He might only be allowed to play the Boks’ home Tests, depending on how his contract is structured. Bok coach Rassie Erasmus confirmed there may have to be some give and take with Duane. And, this is key, Rassie is okay with that.
I’ve had messages from some respected rugby people, livid that ‘Duane is allowed to pick and choose’ when he wants to play for the Boks.
I fully understand the sentiment and the idea that no player is greater than the team. But there are subtle differences in this scenario. Duane isn’t using the Japan move as some sort of leverage to demand Bok selection. He is out of contract, has been offered incomparable money in Japan that just can’t be matched in SA. He has shown his commitment in Bok colours on the field and, in the bigger picture, he will be fully engaged for the 2019 World Cup.
Playing in Japan will preserve his body, which, given the way he plays, could do with some preservation if we want him at optimum level at the World Cup.
In this day and age of SA players all over the world, the Springboks have to adapt to how they choose players, and simply putting every player in the same one-size-fits-all box is counter-productive.
Duane Vermeulen is no ordinary player and rugby is in an extraordinary age where players are paid millions at clubs all over the world.
Chasing good money doesn’t necessarily lessen their commitment to the Springboks when they are called on, but it does mean the decision to play for SA is not always as straightforward as blind patriotism. Duane’s commitment to SA and the Boks can never be questioned if you watch his performances.
Occasionally, a player has earned the right to be treated a little differently to the rank and file. Occasionally, a player is so valuable to the bigger picture that he should be allowed a little leeway to set his own agenda.
Duane has earned that right.