The cancellation of Japan’s Top League season back in March due to coronavirus left South Africa No 8 Duane Vermeulen scrambling for a route back home from Japan after his scheduled flight was cancelled, with the window to get back into the country rapidly closing.
“A lady with purple hair – I didn’t know her – told me about another flight via Addis Ababa on Ethiopian Airlines, and I managed to get on after paying cash for my ticket,” Vermeulen tells Telegraph Sport. “I arrived in South Africa with a couple of hours to spare before our initial 21-day national lockdown period started.”
Vermeulen is currently back home in the northern suburbs of Cape Town with his wife Ezra and their two sons, disappointed that his time with Kubota Spears has come to an end. Kubota had won four of their first six matches, with Vermeulen part of a side featuring Ryan Crotty and Bernard Foley. Yet this chaotic period has given the 33 year-old invaluable time to rest up and be with his young family, when he would normally be far away from home.
“For sure, we’re all getting a good break from the rigours of playing at the moment and depending on how soon things return to normal, I guess it will be good for us in the long run, especially after a mentally and physically taxing 2019 season,” he admits.
“Our two boys, Anru and Zian, have kept me busy the last few weeks. But for someone who spends a lot of time on the road to play rugby, I’ve cherished the time we’ve had together as a family. The weather in Cape Town has been superb and at least we’ve been able to have the odd braai every now and again.”
Vermeulen, as things stand, will not be heading back to Japan. Nor will he be retiring from international rugby. He was due to return to South Africa in June anyway, taking up a two-year contract with the Bulls with a clear target – to play against the British and Irish Lions next year.
He faced the Lions twice back in 2009 right at the start of his career, playing for Western Province and an Emerging Boks side, with the latter memorably snatching a 13-13 draw in a downpour at Newlands in the final midweek match of the tour.
“That match for the Emerging Boks was quite special. It was a superb conversion by Willem de Waal from the touchline in pouring rain [to draw the game]. The WP match was also close, we gave them a good run for their money and in the end lost by three points,” he recalls.
“But facing the Lions in a Test match has always been something that I would love to do. Now that I’m returning to South Africa, I hope I can play well enough to be selected to face them next year.”
Vermeulen had to wait until 2012 to make his Test debut. In the time since he has won 54 caps and established himself as a defence-wrecking, bulldozer of a No 8, arguably the best in the world at his peak.
He was the clear winner in a personal head-to-head against Billy Vunipola when England toured South Africa in 2018 before Vunipola re-fractured his arm. It was a similar story at last year’s World Cup, with Vermeulen named Player of the Match in the final and thriving under Rassie Erasmus, the coach he began his professional career with playing for Free State.
Erasmus has now stepped back into a director of rugby role, leading to the promotion of Jacques Nienaber from defence coach to South Africa head coach, with Vermeulen full of praise for both men.
“I can honestly say that I learn something from Rassie almost every day,” Vermeulen explains. “He brought me to the Cheetahs when I was a youngster playing for the Pumas, and later again from Bloemfontein to the Stormers, and I will always be grateful to him for the opportunities he’s given me. Working with someone with such an astute rugby brain is a massive privilege. He has played a massive role in my career.
“I’ve known Jacques for a long time and always enjoyed working with him. He is probably one of the hardest-working coaches I’ve ever come across and he lives for the Boks. The structures put in place by Rassie will remain and I think it’s great for SA Rugby that they’ve managed to get some coaching continuity after the four-year RWC cycle. Now we just need to get back on the field.”
South Africa’s last outing of course was mesmeric, the biggest winning margin in a World Cup final for 20 years. England went into the final in Yokohama as favourites having knocked out back-to-back champions New Zealand and while the inquest immediately began into where Eddie Jones’ side went wrong – primarily the scrum after Kyle Sinckler’s early injury – perhaps the focus should have been on how South Africa excelled across the board, with Vermeulen highlighting one passage in particular.
“I wouldn’t say England were far off their best. Perhaps it was more a case of us being close to playing the perfect game,” notes Vermeulen. “Everything just clicked and when we got the upper hand in the scrums, things started falling into place.
“It was an amazing game to play in, but we still had to work very hard for the win, especially late in the first half when we were made to defend for what felt like hours – that’s where we probably laid down a very important marker in the match itself. They only came away with three points, which was pivotal. And after that, we scored two more penalties late in the half which gave us that extra spring in the step going into the break.
“England had a very good team, but I think the fact that we had the upper hand in the scrum was a massive advantage. Being on the back-foot is tough in rugby and with that foundation, we were allowed to play more.”
The open-bus tours around South Africa with the Webb Ellis Cup that followed, visiting seven cities, feel a world away from the recent lockdown imposed on the country. It was a whirlwind period of celebration, with little down time before Vermulen was back on a plane to link up with Kubota in Funabashi.
“At that stage, when we were in the moment, it was great, but looking back at it now it feels almost unreal,” Vermeulen admits. “Sometimes I have to walk back to the cupboard to check my medal, almost having to pinch myself.
“It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions – the fantastic support we received when we arrived back in South Africa was amazing. I’ll never forget those few days.”
Now the plan is to make more memories in July and August next year when the Lions return. If the series comes even close to matching the 2009 edition then we are all in for a treat.
Given his age and the Springboks’ success in Japan, you would be forgiven for wondering if Vermeulen might have opted after the World Cup to bring an end to his days barrelling through would-be tacklers. The fire, however, is still burning.