CAPE TOWN - Having last played in the Currie Cup final on January 30, Duane Vermeulen’s return to the rugby pitch at the weekend may have had Bulls and Springbok fans watching with bated breath.
The 34-year-old No 8 was the rock upon which the Bulls’ success last season was built, as he led them to the Super Rugby Unlocked and Currie Cup titles.
Even more importantly, Vermeulen needs to prove his fitness over the next few weeks in order to be ready for the British and Irish Lions series in July.
The Bulls skipper had been given time off after the Currie Cup to be with his family back in Cape Town, having stayed in a hotel close to Loftus Versfeld while in Pretoria.
At the same time, Vermeulen opted to have his knee “cleaned out”, which entails a scope procedure to remove any bits of cartilage or soft tissue that were causing him some discomfort.
His recovery took a while longer than he initially anticipated, and he was set to return for the opening Rainbow Cup SA clash against the Lions. But SA Rugby protocols for players included in the Springbok alignment camps saw him sitting out the 22-9 victory at Loftus Versfeld, with his comeback delayed until a visit to Cape Town Stadium against his former team, the Stormers.
Vermeulen certainly put himself about in the 50-odd minutes he played in the 20-16 Bulls victory. He put in a few big hits in defence, carried the ball strongly, and fielded the high ball with aplomb.
That diesel engine will take a while to reach full capacity, but that is something he will hope to achieve by the end of the Rainbow Cup SA competition on the second weekend of June, with the Boks facing Georgia in their first Test since the Rugby World Cup on July 2 or 3.
“Very happy. He played for 55 minutes and he feels good. I said this week that it’s important that Duane is right for the British and Irish Lions series, and part of our work at the provinces is to prepare the players for that tour. He didn’t play for a long time, so I am very happy that he came through it,” Bulls coach Jake White said after the Stormers match.
The man himself posted on Instagram that it was “great to be back on the field after a long layoff”, and was delighted with the Bulls’ performance, especially with how they had managed to disrupt the Stormers’ lineout.
“We have a plan that we are working on, and hopefully we execute our system every time we hit the field. I think today, we really did well. We got jumpers in the air, and obviously when the Stormers set their mauls, it all comes down to attitude and who wants it more,” Vermeulen told SuperSport.
“Our guys really put up their hands and executed well. We worked hard on our defence, and you see our defence coach jumping up and down, and shouting from the side – and it’s really, really hard and tough on the guys.
“But it’s nice to see the guys really putting their bodies on the line and working hard at it. Really happy with the performance.”
The Bulls will host the Sharks next at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday (6.15pm kickoff).