Brain as important as brawn as Ulster plot trophy tilt, insists settled Duane Vermeulen

The Red Hand host Toulouse in Belfast tonight.

Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

WITH A TROPHY cabinet boasting a World Cup winners’ medal and two Currie Cup winners’ medals, if anybody knows the characteristics that it takes to win silverware for both club and country then it’s Duane Vermeulen.

It’s that kind of experience that he hoped to bring to Ulster when he signed for the Irish province. Indeed, it’s saying something that the 35-year-old Springbok has won all three of his trophies since Ulster last brought one back to Kingspan Stadium when they claimed the Celtic Cup in 2006.

His signing raised eyebrows across the rugby world for both the timing of it – partway into the campaign when all off-season business is generally already done – and the magnitude of one of the best players in his position in world rugby swapping South Africa for Belfast.

And yet here he is, Vermeulen now front and centre in an Ulster title push that is starting to gather pace on both fronts, and he is confident that he has joined a team that has the right approach towards ending their wait for silverware.

“I think the big thing probably is the mentality,” says the Nelspruit native when asked what is the key to a title-winning squad. “Nowadays a lot of people still think rugby is a massive physical game. When I was younger I also thought so. But the last couple of years the more I’ve realised it’s the mental game plays a massive part.

“How you prep yourself, how the coaches prepare the players, your thoughts about the game, how you all play. If you’re mentally prepared, obviously the physical part is so much simpler. That’s the biggest thing from winning teams.

“We talk about a young team (at Ulster) but there’s a lot of maturity in those guys. There’s guys who really know what they’re talking about when we’re on the pitch and when we’re off the pitch when we’re preparing for our matches. It’s great to see guys doing that and it really shows the team is looking to go places. Hopefully something is on the horizon.”

He didn’t see that kind of mentality in his last foray into Europe from 2015 to 2018 with Toulon who, despite the world class squad they possessed, never hit the heights required in his three years in the south of France to add to their Champions Cup haul from the early 2010s.

“On paper we had a star-studded team. There were a hell of a lot of internationals, New Zealanders, Australians, Argentinian-based players. It was fantastic to see some of those guys, individually they were really good and played really well. Obviously as a team we just couldn’t put things together. We lost out on the small basic stuff,” recalls Vermeulen.

“Moving here with Ulster, it’s a whole squad thing. There’s a massive input from every single player, not just your starters, not just your 23 but all the other guys throughout the week, prepping us in the way the opposing team will play and things like that. It’s fantastic to see the vibe from the guys. Everyone plays a part, everyone contributes to the sole purpose of this team.

“That’s the biggest thing where you get a little bit of difference from a French-based team and an Irish-based team. The other thing is in France they rely on their bigger guys, they have massive players who give them go-forward. Over here you have to have to something different but it’s been working out for us.”

Moving to Ulster was a stab in the dark for Vermeulen and his family, who have all dived in both feet first and made the switch to Belfast with him. None of them had never been to Northern Ireland before accepting Bryn Cunningham’s contract offer and now they call it home.

Call it divine intervention, the stars aligning or however you attribute the hand of fate in someone’s life, everything seemed to come together at just the right time for Ulster to make the move possible when, in previous seasons, they might have been turned down. A team notably on the rise and needing someone to come in to fill a rather sizeable Marcell Coetzee shaped hole in their squad, they stumbled on a gem.

It also required things to fall into place perfectly for Vermeulen, too, and fortunately for Ulster it did. His Bulls contract had just come to an end and, at his own admission, he was “in a bad spot” as a result and was considering a second stint in Japan as what would effectively be one final pay day.

Then the phone rang and the rest, as they say, is history.

“I sat down and spoke with my wife and said: ‘Listen, let’s do this as a family, one last move before I retire.’ I’ve been away from my family the past seven years and people don’t realise how difficult that is. We sat down and we said, ‘Let’s do it together, do it as a family, and when we go back we can all sit down and say this was the last step’,” he reveals.

“Hopefully I can come here and contribute in a way on and off the field and help some guys. That was the decision we made and we made it wholeheartedly. I’m enjoying my time here.

“I could have stayed at the Bulls (instead) but I decided to try something else. Life is about experiences as well, and not just being stuck in one place. A lot of people like being in one place and are really comfortable doing that but I love to move around, learn a bit more. Everywhere I go I learn from different coaches and different cultures.

“For me, it’s a journey, and you’ve got to love the journey. That played a major role in my decision to come here.”

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And now that he’s here, the desire is that when he leaves, be it at the end of his contract next season or potentially even further in the future, it will be with a medal around his neck and some unforgettable memories to take back into retirement in South Africa when the boots are eventually hung up.

That could come this season if Ulster continue their unbeaten run in the Heineken Champions Cup, and they head into tonight’s second-leg of their Heineken Champions Cup last-16 tie with defending champions Toulouse holding a 26-20 advantage after last week’s first-leg in France.

Some might argue that just pushing a heavyweight outfit like Toulouse close would be signs of progression for Ulster, who are still forging their reputation as contenders on the European stage. But not for Vermeulen. As a World Cup winner, his standards are much higher and, as a result, so are Ulster’s.

“You don’t play in the competition just to compete, you play in the competition to win. That’s the ultimate goal,” he insists.

“Everyone wants to lift trophies, and not just win trophies but make memories throughout the journey. You write your own little book and say this is my chapter. You take it step by step. Ultimately everyone wants to win trophies and that’s a big thing.

“In this squad there is a big hunger for a trophy. We’re in line to compete and win a trophy like that. Hopefully we can step up and try and play our best game, deliver on the weekend and hopefully lift that trophy.”

15. Mike Lowry; 14. Robert Baloucoune, 13. James Hume, 12. Stuart McCloskey, 11. Ethan McIlroy; 10. Billy Burns, 9. John Cooney; 1. Andrew Warwick, 2. Rob Herring, 3. Marty Moore; 4. Alan O’Connor, 5. Iain Henderson (captain); 6. Marcus Rea, 7. Nick Timoney, 8. Duane Vermeulen.
Replacements: 16. Brad Roberts, 17. Eric O’Sullivan, 18. Tom O’Toole, 19. Kieran Treadwell, 20. Jordi Murphy, 21. Nathan Doak, 22. Luke Marshall, 23. Rob Lyttle.

15. Thomas Ramos; 14. Dimitri Delibes, 13. Tim Nanai-Williams, 12. Pita Ahki, 11. Matthis Lebel; 10. Romain Ntamack, 9. Antoine Dupont (captain); 1. Rodrigue Neti, 2. Peato Mauvaka, 3. Charlie Faumuina; 4. Rory Arnold, 5. Richie Arnold; 6. Rynhardt Elstadt, 7. Anthony Jelonch, 8. Selevasio Tolofua.
Replacements: 16. Guillaume Cramont, 17. David Ainu’u, 18. Dorian Aldegheri, 19. Emmanuel Meafou, 20. Thibaud Flament, 21. Antoine Miquel, 22. Baptiste Germain, 23. Lucas Tauzin.

Referee: Matthew Carley (England)

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