Most children see their father as a superhero and Springbok and Bulls hardman Duane Vermeulen’s sons are no different.
But since 2011, after the launch of the movie Thor, Vermeulen’s superhero status has quadrupled and spread to many households across the country, with him being viewed as rugby’s reincarnation of Thor. His boys’ fantasy world was turned into a reality.
But that reality was turned upside down last year when Vermeulen, 32, penned a deal to play Super Rugby for the Bulls. The Vermeulens’ fantasy world became a nightmare when the Stormers were allocated Thor as their superhero in SA Rugby’s attempt to attract a younger and more impressionable audience ahead of this year’s competition.
What would have cast a dark cloud over the Vermeulen household is the fact that he could have easily rejoined the Stormers instead of the Bulls, had the Cape Town-based franchise had their house in order financially and showed some sort of commitment in getting the Nelspruit-born eighthman back to the Cape.
In the same way that Vermeulen has been regarded as the Springboks’ superhero during turbulent times in recent years, the former Toulon loose forward rushed in to save the day for his sons with Christmas gifts of Captain America shields.
Those shields have not only been a timely intervention in turning misery into joy for his sons, they have also added two more die-hard fans to the Loftus Versfeld faithful, who have pinned their hopes on Vermeulen’s arrival at the Bulls. They hope his presence will save the day and bring an end to their nine-year trophy drought.
Switching Thor’s hammer for Captain America’s shield
“My two boys are still going on about Thor, but I thought I’d buy them a Captain America jersey. Luckily they got Captain America shields for Christmas, so we have been working on it,” Vermeulen said with a wry smile on his face, as if he had caught wind of the Bulls jersey being that of Captain America.
“I think it is a nice thing what they are doing and it brings a bit of excitement to the game. Super Rugby in South Africa has taken a bit of a dip, and this is to get people excited about rugby and about everything that is happening this year. It’s a big year for SA Rugby and hopefully everybody can bring their side.”
Vermeulen’s reality in Pretoria will be that of representing Captain America in this year’s Super Rugby tournament. And although he is far removed from the sickly Brooklyn man turned super soldier, Vermeulen is considered by many as the messiah who will deliver a fourth Super Rugby title to a team that has endured tough times.
While Vermeulen has carried the superhero tag for most of his rugby career, he doesn’t promise to deliver miracles at Loftus other than giving every fibre of his being on and off the field for the Bulls.
“I just want to play and contribute, and I have experience from all over the world that I’d like to share with the younger guys. It’s a long competition and I’d like to leave a bit of myself here at Loftus,” said Vermeulen.
Returning to the Bulls’ glory days
Those that have faced a rampaging Vermeulen know all about him leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. But in the case of his stay at Loftus, he will want to leave a glowing legacy that mirrors that of Super Rugby-winning legends like Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez, Danie Rossouw, Bryan Habana and Akona Ndungane.
Confrontational in his play and never shy to rush into places on the field where angels and even superheroes fear to tread, Vermeulen said it will take more than just one man to return the Bulls to their glory days.
And there is a common thread from the team that won Super Rugby in 2007, 2009 and 2010 to the current squad, in that they are littered with Springboks.
The list of superstars may not read like that of the demigods that ruled Loftus, South Africa, Super Rugby and the world a decade ago, but there are enough big names in the current team not only to inspire hope in mounting a challenge for the title but also to plant seeds of doubt and instil fear in opposing teams. These include the likes of Lood de Jager, RG Snyman, Trevor Nyakane, Lizo Gqoboka, Schalk Brits, Embrose Papier, Ivan van Zyl, Handre Pollard, Jesse Kriel and Warrick Gelant.
Throwing down the gauntlet
The spanner in the works for the incumbent men in blue is the lack of depth outside of their starters. Vermeulen has challenged the rest of the players in the squad to stand up and be counted in a year in which the Bulls have vowed to turn a corner and return to southern hemisphere domination.
“We have a big bunch of players who have played for the Springboks and there’s an opportunity for new guys to do that as well. But they need to show from the start that they can play the style of rugby that makes them the players they are,” Vermeulen said.
“I think I can contribute to a young group at the Bulls, they’re a good bunch of guys and a good group of players, but they lack experience in certain areas.”
Emulating what has been done before at Loftus will take more than just having the right personnel, it will also require the Bulls to play the all-attack and bone-crushing defence brand of rugby that made them three-time Super Rugby champions. That mentality was being entrenched back into the team by former coach John Mitchell, who left last year after only 12 months in Pretoria.
“We’re not going to win by playing a different brand of rugby,” Vermeulen said, emphasising the point of the Bulls continuing with Mitchell’s blueprint, which incumbent coach Pote Human has endorsed.
Having been part of title-contending teams, Springboks at the 2015 Rugby World Cup along with the Stormers in the 2010 Super Rugby final and Toulon in the French Top 14 final in 2016, who both faltered at the last hurdle, Vermeulen bares battle scars of a rugby soldier who is not yet defeated and has one more battle left in him to win the ultimate war.
But for Vermeulen to finally get his dues for his service to the game and return the Bulls to Super Rugby’s top table, the Bulls will need to show their appetite for the battle in their first game of the season against the Stormers at Loftus on 16 February. They will then have to build on that for what they hope will be a silverware-paved road to glory.
“We have to take it step by step, we mustn’t get ahead of ourselves. We need to start well, win our first match and then build from there.”
And just like Vermeulen is a superhero to his sons, much of what happens with the Bulls this season will rest on his broad shoulders and ability to inspire his battalion of Captain Americas to a fourth Super Rugby title and southern hemisphere dominance.
Their strength lies not only in one facet but in a combination of things that will make them deadly if they come together. If the Bulls can keep their superstar Springboks on the field and adhere to the running rugby philosophy left by Mitchell, then the side will be hard to beat.
Despite Mitchell lasting just over a year in the capital, his teachings could just be what ends the nine-year trophy drought as the Bulls looked almost invincible with ball in hand in last year’s Super Rugby and Currie Cup competitions.
Depth. It is the cornerstone of any side with the lofty ambition of becoming champions. And that is the one aspect that is lacking in Human’s team. It is not that the Bulls are unaware of this situation, but there aren’t too many top-class internationals with hordes of Super Rugby experience roaming around who are prepared to forego the euro, pound and yen.
The Bulls are extremely thin in the front row, with a looming crisis at hooker as they are without Edgar Marutlulle and Jaco Visagie. The same applies at openside flank with Roelof Smit and Marco van Staden recovering from injury, and there will be concern at flyhalf and wing as well.
Planet (Power rank)
It would be foolish and reckless to completely rule out the chances of any team winning the competition, more so a Springbok-laden team that lives in the shadow of being the only South African franchise to have won the competition in the professional era.
The Bulls are blessed with an embarrassment of riches and the makings of a championship-winning side to mirror the golden generation that won three Super Rugby titles in four years. There is no doubt that the Bulls are genuine title contenders and it will be up to them to prove that through their performance.
Aside from the rugby gods seemingly having conspired to give the Bulls a less treacherous run into the play-offs, their biggest obstacle will be the Crusaders and travelling to Australia and New Zealand.
While the Crusaders have been their lucky charm in years gone by, with the Bulls beating them in three semifinal clashes en-route to their three titles, it is the very same Crusaders that have been a stumbling block to any recent advances the Bulls have tried to make.
Remember the Bulls’ record 62-24 defeat in 2017 at the hands of the Crusaders? The Bulls will be hoping for a different result when they host the record championship holders on 10 May in a precursor to a tour that could make or break the men in blue.
This is the final part in a series of profiles on the South African franchises who will be flying the flag in this year’s Super Rugby.