Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The Currie Cup final, the revelation of the Springbok squad for Europe … those events slightly masked the magnitude of Duane Vermeulen’s confirmation on Friday as a Bulls player in 2019.
It was hardly a secret for some time that he was probably headed for Pretoria, for a campaign that will help sharpen the blue-chip Bok No 8 suitably ahead of the World Cup in Japan from late September, but it is a momentous development all the same.
What happens beyond RWC for the formidable physical specimen is a matter for conjecture at this stage: he will be 33 by the time the premier global tournament – his second – ends, so retirement is hardly out of the question.
Bear in mind that he has already had lucrative, foreign-currency stints in both France and Japan, so whether northern climes will hold any further appeal is also up for debate.
While there is every chance Vermeulen would ideally have preferred a return (at least partly for lifestyle/family reasons) to Cape Town for the Stormers, who he represented with aplomb from 2009 to 2015, fate has instead decreed that he switch base for a few months to the Highveld.
The prospect will not daunt him too much, as he is well familiar with varying parts of the country, considering his birth and education in Nelspruit and couple of years in Bloemfontein, too, on the books of the Cheetahs as an up-and-coming first-class player.
There is also a case, if you are a relative neutral on domestic Super Rugby matters, for arguing that the Bulls could do with his invaluable services more than the Stormers, who have a broader cupboard of loose-forward depth (both wet behind the ears and more seasoned) than the Loftus-based franchise.
Bear in mind that two of the incumbent Bok loosie starters – flanks Siya Kolisi and Pieter-Steph du Toit – are Newlands-based and will remain so next year, while they also possess another Bok fringe player in Sikhumbuzo Notshe, plus Kobus van Dyk, Cobus Wiese, Jaco Coetzee, Ernst van Rhyn and their own, emerging piledriver of an eighth-man, Juarno “Trokkie” Augustus.
Vermeulen going to Pretoria, frankly, contributes to a more gratifying dispersal of top-notch resources among the quartet of SA-based teams in the 2019 competition.
The three-time champion Bulls, remember, ended bottom of the domestic conference (also including the Jaguares) earlier this year and as many as 17 points shy of the group-topping Lions.
Following John Mitchell’s departure, they remain without a head coach for next year — at a time when the other teams are already getting their strategic ducks in a row to some extent.
But whoever takes the reins, he will almost certainly be enormously chuffed to have the hardened international pro “Thor” both on his playing staff and as a crucial mentoring figure to several more callow Bulls players.
He is one of those all-important go-forward figures in the tight-loose, as well as being an alert, hard-hitting defender and man with great positional acumen at key times when danger potentially looms against his side – not to mention his continued ability for effecting robust steals like an open-side flank.
The likelihood of Vermeulen being in the starting line-up will certainly spice up their opening fixture, which just so happens to be against his old buddies the Stormers at Loftus on February 16.
What’s more, two of the next three Bulls matches are also derbies, against the Lions (away) and Sharks (home), and those are exactly the types of arm-wrestles that best get his competitive juices flowing.
Although their front row remains something of an Achilles heel, the Bulls have strong lock resources and the thought of both Vermeulen and the similarly uncompromising, more youthful but explosive Marco van Staden – at six — in the same loose trio will be an appealing one for their long-suffering fans.
There may just be occasions where Vermeulen operates at blindside flank, too, which would allow for some ongoing exposure at eight for another leadership figure in Hanro Liebenberg.
Vitally add Vermeulen now to such names as Jesse Kriel, Handre Pollard, Warrick Gelant, Lood de Jager and RG Snyman, and the Bulls of 2019 should possess something previously absent for a few years: a meaningful spine.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing