For many Springbok supporters, Duane Vermeulen’s undoubted ability, coupled with his long and fruitful association with coach Rassie Erasmus, makes him a shoo-in at No 8 for the World Cup.
However, Erasmus by nature acts according to the sums made on cold, hard facts, which raises the question: should Vermeulen really be picked ahead of Warren Whiteley?
I started wrestling with this question following Whiteley’s return from injury to the Lions side for their unexpected 23-17 victory over the Chiefs in Hamilton.
In the preceding two rounds, sans Whiteley, the Lions were beaten 42-5 by the Sharks at Ellis Park and 31-20 by the Brumbies in Canberra. Enter Whiteley and the Chiefs were scalped. Exit Whiteley and the Lions got smashed 36-10 by the Crusaders in Christchurch the following week.
Coincidence? I think not. It’s more likely a result of the Whiteley-effect.
The problem, of course, is that it’s not something that can be measured and necessarily applied elsewhere. The sheer presence of a player isn’t something that a stats app or indeed any measuring tool can explain. His teammates may tell you that they grow an extra arm and leg because he’s such an inspirational bloke, but it may also be environment-specific.
Then there’s Vermeulen – hardly someone we can accuse of lacking presence or inspirational qualities. When the going gets tough, Duane gets going and that is surely the kind of player you need for your team to be successful at the highest level.
There are a few conventional wisdoms about both players. It’s been said that Whiteley isn’t quite as physical as Vermeulen, is a looser player and his leadership qualities, rather than his ability as a player, are his major strength.
Vermeulen is the bloke that relishes the rough stuff – the quintessential tough-tackling South African forward and a man that has more than mastered the art of winning turnovers at the breakdown.
One way in which to accommodate both might be to shift Vermeulen to the blindside flank, but Erasmus would have to take leave of his senses to sacrifice Pieter-Steph du Toit so that he can sidestep having to decide between which of Vermeulen and Whiteley belongs in his starting line-up.
Such tricky selection posers are sometimes solved through twists of fate. The next torn ligament or groin muscle is always just around the corner. But as things stand, Erasmus is faced with a conundrum.
Whiteley, in spite of having been appointed captain in 2017, has through circumstances never been able to thrive in the Springbok environment. He was injured during the June series against France that year and didn’t play in the Rugby Championship or on the end-of-season tour.
He was a regular in Allister Coetzee’s first year at the helm as Bok coach in 2016, but Adriaan Strauss was the skipper and it was an annus horribilus for South Africa on the world stage if ever there was one.
Last year Whiteley started in six internationals, but in only one of those was Vermeulen in the match-day squad. That was in the 29-26 win over France, with Whiteley at No 8 and Vermeulen on the flank. Siya Kolisi, the captain, was on the other flank.
As long as he’s fit, Kolisi’s presence and captaincy will be cast in stone, which means that Vermeulen and Whiteley will, from a leadership perspective, be assessed on their ability to be support acts.
Neither will have another pop at World Cup glory beyond Japan 2019. Whiteley turns 32 three days before the Boks open their campaign against the All Blacks, while Vermeulen will be 33.
Vermeulen, perhaps, still offers the most compelling case for selection. While pace may no longer count among his strengths, he probably has the self-efficacy – the belief in his innate ability to achieve his goals – to excel at his last hurrah on the international stage. Importantly, he also has a fear factor and charisma that distinguishes him at the highest level.
Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see how the Lions’ Super Rugby campaign plays out – both with and without Whiteley. If they continue to defy the odds when he’s around, Erasmus may have to start thinking twice.
It’s a heck of a call to have to make in a World Cup year.