DURBAN - Heyneke Meyer and Jean de Villiers looked like condemned men as they sat before the media to explain what had just transpired at the Brighton Community Stadium. They couldn’t.
The Japanese fans were still singing, dancing and crying in the stands as the Springbok coach and captain, drawn and pale, stumbled through their answers. What could they say?
That night, in the confines of his room, it is quite probable that coach Meyer wondered what might have been had he selected Duane Vermeulen for the 2015 World Cup opener.
The 2014 SA Rugby Player of the Year had played no rugby that year since a serious neck injury incurred playing for the Stormers in Super Rugby.
His neck vertebrae were fused back 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 tough but certain win over Eddie Jones’s Cherry Blossoms, in order to give him one more week of recovery.
Pieter-Steph du Toit was picked on the blindside flank and Schalk Burger switched to No 8, with Francois Louw completing the loose trio.
Burger was typically immense and Louw valiantly tried his best, but the 2m tall, 120kg Du Toit struggled to keep up with the frenetic pace and width with which the Japanese played.
We need no reminding that the Boks lost by two points (34-32) but would they have won had the match been treated as a final (the next match against Samoa was openly treated as such by the beleagured Boks)? Vermeulen most certainly started the next week at Villa Park in Birmingham.
He also finished the match, playing all 84 minutes of the 46-6 win over the most physical side in the World Cup, the ultra-combative Samoans, his first rugby in months since almost breaking his neck.
Vermeulen was the Man of the Match. Further, the Boks at that time had a private award, a hunting knife, given to the player they felt had the most presence on defence.
Vermeulen, nicknamed “The Rock” by his teammates of that era, won that too. The Boks did not lose again until the semi-final against the All Blacks (20-18) and finished as bronze medallists, with Vermeulen prominent in every match.
After that 2015 World Cup match at the home of Aston Villa, Vermeulen remarked: “I wanted to be thrown into the deep end, and I told the coach as much. I can’t be bothered with messing about off the bench unless the coach feels I am not good enough to start.
“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’...”
It is probable that Vermeulen would have saved the day against Japan had he been picked...
He has an infectious warrior spirit, he is a rallying point when the going gets tough, and the manner in which he repeatedly crashes over the advantage line with ball in hand and throws himself into tackles with reckless abandon is hugely inspirational.
We have seen that lately in the bellicose battles with England, particularly the spiteful second Test in Bloemfontein last week. Vermeulen was inevitably in the thick of it.
The 31-year-old’s quiet leadership has made him the perfect lieutenant to captain Siya Kolisi. The latter cannot do it on his own, and the presence of a battle-hardened campaigner in Vermeulen will have assisted Kolisi in doing the fine job he has done.
Vermeulen has to date played 41 Tests for South Africa. His win loss record says it all: 30 victories and 11 losses.
These days, The Rock nickname has given way to “Thor”, on account of Vermeulen’s physical likeness to the movie superhero as well as his sledgehammer performances for the Boks.
Given Vermeulen’s rugby form, Australian actor Chris Hemsworth might well be flattered at the comparison...