The Springboks have missed a trick by overlooking the value that Duane Vermeulen and Frans Steyn could have added to the end-of-year tour, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
On Saturday, the Springboks will kick off their European tour against Ireland – a team that is now ahead of South Africa in the world rankings, and who will be regarded as favourites at home.
It’s a clash that will set the tone for the remainder of the Boks’ tour. Win, and there is every reason to believe they could achieve their goal of four end-of-year victories. But lose, and the inevitable criticism will be that the Springboks failed to come up trumps in their ‘headline’ fixture of the tour.
No one will need reminding about the Boks’ nightmare winless end-of-year tour in 2016, and while they have come a long way since then, they have again headed to Europe with a squad short on experience and on leadership in a couple of key positions.
One doesn’t have to look too far to realise that the Boks are lacking specialist depth at No 8 and inside centre. And with this in mind, it seems such a waste that Vermeulen and Steyn continue to be overlooked.
It’s all fine and well for the Springboks to continue advocating a policy of backing locally-based players first and foremost, but surely there has to be some wiggle room when circumstances demand it.
Since Warren Whiteley’s injury during the June series against France, the Boks have started three regular flanks at No 8: Jean-Luc du Preez, Uzair Cassiem and Francois Louw. All with limited success.
Nevertheless, the Springboks have still opted to brazenly head on their end-of-year tour with just one specialist No 8 in the form of uncapped Dan du Preez.
Similarly, the unavailability of Jan Serfontein has meant that Damian de Allende is the only out-and-out No 12 on tour, with uncapped Lukhanyo Am appearing to be the man who will provide backup, considering Handré Pollard won’t feature there.
All the while, Vermeulen and Steyn continue to do duty for their overseas clubs, with a combined total of 63 Test caps and vast experience of northern hemisphere conditions continuing to be overlooked.
In an exclusive interview with SARugbymag.co.za on Monday, Vermeulen expressed his enduring desire to contribute to the Boks: ‘I will play tighthead prop if they need me to, but my goal is to push for that No 8 position and to compete against guys like Billy Vunipola and Kieran Read on the Test stage …
‘Some guys talk about finishing their career with 100 or more caps,’ Vermeulen added. ‘At this stage I’m still looking to surpass 50. The next World Cup is in the back of my mind. I really want to be there in 2019.’
Surely that’s the type of committed character you would want to be in the Bok setup?
In explaining Vermeulen’s omission last week, Coetzee suggested that he hadn’t played enough rugby after a lengthy recent layoff, while pointing to the super conditioning work that the current squad members have been completing in training.
That’s all fair and well, but what an opportunity it would have been to reintroduce Vermeulen to the current Bok environment, and to begin assessing his strength and conditioning first-hand.
Don’t forget that lock Ruan Botha was called up to the Boks when Jean-Luc du Preez was injured in the Currie Cup, but his participation on this end-of-year tour is likely to be primarily in an introductory capacity.
Would there not have been more value in allowing Vermeulen to spend time sharing his experience with Jean-Luc’s brother Dan, while getting stuck into the Boks’ conditioning programme? I know my views on the matter.
I also can’t quite understand the stance on Steyn. He featured briefly off the bench in all three Tests against France in June, and was then released with the explanation that he could enjoy a productive pre-season with French club Montpellier.
Steyn did just that and has now been playing week-in and week-out in France, while just this past weekend he produced an influential performance in Montpellier’s 28-24 win over Clermont.
Again, the absence of Serfontein provided the perfect opportunity to reintroduce Steyn back to the Bok setup, and yet the versatile veteran – who can cover flyhalf, inside centre and fullback – was deemed surplus to requirements.
Vermeulen will be 33 years old at the next World Cup. At the 2011 showpiece, John Smit, Danie Rossouw and Victor Matfield were all that age or older. Steyn will be 32 in 2019. Percy Montgomery was 33 when the Boks won the tournament in 2007.
There is every reason to believe that both Vermeulen and Steyn could and should still be contenders for the 2019 World Cup, and to overlook them for this end-of-year tour simply smacks of another missed opportunity.
Photo: Boris Horvat/AFP Photo