Duane Vermeulen: From doing sister’s ponytails to Springbok great

Springboks’ No 8 Duane Vermeulen has called time on his rugby career after winning a second Rugby World Cup winners medal. Picture: Mike Egerton / PA Wire via Backpagepix

Springboks’ No 8 Duane Vermeulen has called time on his rugby career after winning a second Rugby World Cup winners medal. Picture: Mike Egerton / PA Wire via Backpagepix

Published Dec 27, 2023


On December 15, a special South African public holiday was celebrated as we reflected on the glory the Springboks gave the country by defending the Webb Ellis Cup in Paris.

One of the players, Duane Vermeulen, has retired from the game and our writer, Mike Greenaway, reflects on Vermeulen’s career in this chapter from his best-selling book, The Fireside Springbok.

When Duane Vermeulen, who retired after the 2023 World Cup in France, played his first game of rugby, he was just seven. He was barefoot in the snow of midwinter in De Doorns, in the heart of the Winelands of the Western Cape.

Duane had just moved to the icy Cape from the town of his birth, Nelspruit, one of the warmest regions of the country. He was much younger than the rest of the players and at half-time his little legs were shaking. He was tempted to go off but instead he rubbed Deep Heat on the soles of his feet and continued.

Tough? That was just the start of it for a player who would grow into a sledgehammer of a Springbok. He would be nicknamed Thor, The Rock and The Great Duane.

It was also at the age of seven that he lost his father to illness. He had to step up for his family.

“When my dad died it was difficult for my mom,” Vermeulen recalls. “She worked two jobs to support us. She left home early in the morning and I had to help my sister. I did her hair. She went to school with some strange-looking ponytails, but we got by.

“My dad had played club rugby and had a few games for Boland. I remember he loved his rugby and when he died I decided that I would go as far as I could in the sport to please him. I knew he would be watching from above. I also wanted to make my mom proud.”

Let’s move the story along to the 2015 World Cup in England. Vermeulen had been playing for the Boks since 2012 and he was key to the Springboks’ ambitions in the tournament.

Famously, Japan beat the Boks in their opening game. The following day, coach Heyneke Meyer said of all the things he wished he could change, it was to have picked Vermeulen for that game.

The 2014 SA Player of the Year had played no rugby that year after severely injuring his neck playing for the Stormers in Super Rugby. His neck vertebrae were fused together in a Durban hospital and three months of meticulous rehabilitation followed to get him ready for the World Cup.

He was not selected for what was expected to be a certain win over the Brave Blossoms. To give him one more week of recovery, Meyer picked Pieter-Steph du Toit as the blindside flank, Schalk Burger switched to No 8, and Francois Louw completed the loose trio.

It was an unbalanced loose trio and it was exposed by the fast-paced game of the Japanese.

Meyer cursed his error and played Vermeulen the next week against the rough Samoans at Villa Park in Birmingham. He played all 84 minutes of the 46-6 defeat of the most physical side in the world.

It was a Player-of-the-Match performance in his first rugby since almost breaking his neck. At that time the Boks also had a private award, a hunting knife, given to the player they felt had the most presence on defence. Vermeulen won that too.

Vermeulen won so many of those knives during Meyer’s coaching reign that Schalk Burger once joked that Vermeulen could stock a hunting store.

After that Samoa game Vermeulen remarked: “I wanted to be thrown into the deep end. I told the coach as much. I can’t be bothered with messing about off the bench. I knew Samoa would bring out the best in me because I thrive on confrontation. There is an Afrikaans word I like called vasbyt — I can’t translate but it is something along the lines of ‘hanging tough’.”

Vermeulen has an infectious warrior spirit. He is a rallying point when the going gets tough and the manner in which he crashes over the advantage line with ball in hand and throws himself into tackles with reckless abandon, is hugely inspirational.

When the Boks beat England in the 2019 World Cup final, Vermeulen was the Player of the Match. In the weeks after the 32-12 victory, Vermeulen gave some wonderful insights into how the World Cup was won.

“In our squad of 33 players, there might have been four who grew up in a ‘normal’ family environment, without experiencing daily strife. For the vast majority, that was not a reality,” he wrote in the book Stronger Together.

“Whether as children or adults, we suffered the type of trauma that twists and shapes every fibre of our being. Some lost a parent or a sibling. Some had nobody. Many had to become a father figure in a household that relied on them, even though they were not ready for it.

“And still, regardless of their struggles, they had the discipline and commitment to also succeed in a team environment that rewarded them with the Webb Ellis Cup.”

Vermeulen said there was an understanding among the players that there were factors besides rugby ability that bound them together as a team.

“I will only confidently go to war with people who have nothing to lose,” Vermeulen said. “These are the people who spill their guts in battle, who say to hell with fate — I am the master of my own destiny. When Rassie selects a side, he selects for character, or what he calls ‘the warrior gene’.

“He selects players with a never-say-die attitude, for whom a fight for survival and redemption has been their default setting from a young age.

“A coach can teach you how to kick and pass the ball, but the warrior gene cannot be instilled in somebody who doesn’t have it. And that character, that golden thread, ran through our entire squad.”

Vermeulen explains that when Rassie took over as coach in 2018, he became annoyed when the players too frivolously spoke about playing to inspire the struggling people of South Africa. Rassie told the players they had to earn the right to do that by being a team of winners.

“South Africa won the World Cup by having a squad of men who understood what it meant to fight for something you believed in. That fight was for nothing other than to become the best team in the world.

“Only then would we have the right to inspire others. We were asked to step away from the limelight and to move into the shadows, where champions are separated from mere contenders.

“And so we did.”

* The Fireside Springbok is on sale at leading book stores or contact Mike at 083 447 0741 for signed copies.

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