He played for the Mpumalanga Pumas before he made his Vodacom Super 14 debut with the Vodacom Cheetahs, but for Duane Vermeulen, last Saturday’s first-round match against the Sharks at Newlands was the realisation of a lifetime ambition.
For as long as he can remember, he has been a Vodacom Western Province and Stormers supporter.
‘Playing for the Vodacom Stormers has been a long-term goal of mine, so it didn’t take me long to make up my mind when Rassie Erasmus suggested that I come to Cape Town,’ says Vermeulen. ‘Since I was a little boy I have always been a Western Province supporter. I don’t know why that is, because I have lived my entire life in Nelspruit, just outside Kruger Park, which is a long way from the Cape and Newlands. Maybe it is just the style of rugby that WP tend to play.
‘It also helped that Rassie [Erasmus] was the coach of the Vodacom Stormers. It was Rassie who discovered me in a sense in that he spotted me when I was still playing for the Pumas. It was he who brought me to Bloemfontein. I really rate him as a coach; it is a great experience to be coached by him and to learn from him, so having him as the Vodacom Stormers coach just made my decision a lot easier.’
It has taken quite an adjustment for Vermeulen to move down to a province where there is a lot more English spoken than he was used to in either Bloemfontein or Nelspruit. I was warned before I interviewed Vermeulen that I might have to do most of it in Afrikaans, but was surprised by his proficiency in the language.
‘Ja, it is improving now. I am making a conscious effort to get it right. In those other places English was hardly ever used, but here there is a lot more English spoken. But you pick it up quickly. [Vodacom Stormers assistant coach] Gary Gold is a great communicator, he is easy to understand, and he has helped me a lot. It does require an adjustment though because in my two years in Bloemfontein everything was in Afrikaans.’
Vermeulen must have started out in senior rugby extremely young, for the No 8 is still shy of his 23rd birthday, and yet he played for two years for the Pumas before Erasmus lured him to the Vodacom Cheetahs in 2007, where he made an immediate impact.
‘I played one or two Vodacom Cup games after moving to Bloemfontein, and then I was thrust into the Vodacom Super 14 in a game against the Highlanders. It was going in at the deep end, and it was difficult to start with, but I think I learnt quite quickly.’
He did indeed, for by the end of the 2007 season he had established himself to the extent that many critics considered him the best player in the Absa Currie Cup, where he excelled on the flank in the deciding games of a competition that his team won. Most of the matches were played in the No 7 jersey, whereas last year he was at No 8 for the Vodacom Cheetahs, as he was again last weekend.
‘I will play anywhere the coach selects me, and eighthman is a position that I have become used to, but I do like playing at No 7,’ he admits.
Vermeulen was good enough at No 8 for the Cheetahs last season, where he won a couple of man of the match awards, to earn selection to Springbok coach Peter de Villiers’s first national squad for 2008. Unfortunately, the experience ended almost before it started as a neck disc injury forced an early departure from the Somerset West training camp.
‘It was great to be selected. It is nice to know you are being recognised and are rated, but it was disappointing to have to miss out on my bite at the cherry. I left the training camp early; we hadn’t really been on the field yet when the problem with my disc was diagnosed.
‘I was ruled out for 10 weeks, and initially I was supposed to have an operation, but I was given advice by a specialist who told me that I would be able to get over the injury by just resting it for 10 weeks. That is what I did and fortunately it worked out for me. It is never good to have a neck operation.
‘The problem was that there was a disc pushing against my nerve, which meant that I lost all power on my left side. Fortunately, I haven’t experienced any problems since then and my pre-season with the Vodacom Stormers went off well. I have been in the Cape since November and am really enjoying living here and being part of the Vodacom Stormers squad. It is a great set-up, very organised and professional and with a classy management team driving it.’
Playing his first game against the Sharks here last week was ‘an awesome experience’ for the powerfully built loose forward, even though the Vodacom Stormers lost.
‘It was a bit disappointing to lose the first game, but it was an unforgettable experience to play in front of 47 000 fans. That many people for just a Vodacom Super 14 game is unbelievable. I did enjoy the game, even though we lost.
‘There were a couple of factors during the match that worked against us, such as Jean’s injury, but overall I think it was encouraging. The bottom line now is that after experiencing the disappointment of a first-round defeat we must just go all out against the Reds to turn it around and get the show back on track.’
Vermeulen had a good first half against the Sharks, with perhaps his finest moment being a huge tackle on Ryan Kankowski just as the Springbok looked set to score a try.
‘It was a one-on-one situation and it was great to stop him like I did, a really good feeling, particularly when the guy you tackle is your opposite number.
‘My aim for the 2009 season is to become a regular starter in the Vodacom Stormers team, and hopefully if that works out, I can start pushing for a Springbok place again and make up for last year’s disappointment. But that will be so much easier if the team does well, so that is the priority at the moment.’
The above article first appeared in the Stormers Match Magazine (vs Reds) and was written by Gavin Rich. Match magazines are on sale from programme sellers inside and outside the ground on match day – don’t miss out on getting yours every time you visit Newlands.