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'Simplicity is key' as Ulster's Springbok Vermeulen looks to add to his winnings

Duane Vermeulen faces his former Stormers side in tomorrow’s URC semi-final.

Duane Vermeulen (file pic).
Duane Vermeulen (file pic).
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

IN SIGNING DUANE Vermeulen, Ulster added something to their squad that they don’t have in abundance among their homegrown players: a winner.

Sure, you can look to the likes of Iain Henderson, Rob Herring and Jacob Stockdale as Six Nations champions, and some of the former Leinster players such as John Cooney, Ian Madigan and Marty Moore, but the province aren’t coming down with figures that have the experience of holding silverware in their hands.

Vermeulen has. A World Cup-winning Springbok and a two-time Currie Cup champion during his time in his homeland, the 35-year-old has no shortage of experience in getting over the line in big games, and Ulster will hope that extends to a United Rugby Championship semi-final tomorrow.

Of course, he wasn’t just signed for his previous exploits, with his technical ability at the set-piece a real strength within an Ulster side built around its maul. But adding someone who can voice exactly what is required to win knockout matches to a squad that has stumbled in that regard over the last few seasons is no bad thing.

“When it comes to down quarter-finals, semi-finals, finals, simplicity is the key. You don’t have to be extravagant, you just have to do the basics right and when you get the opportunity to score or get points on the board, you’ve got to take it, that’s the main thing,” explains Vermeulen.

“We were a bit short throughout the season with the way we played. We couldn’t really put in an 80-minute performance and in the latter part of the tournament it felt like the guys were understanding that we can’t just hang back on our laurels, we’ve got to keep pushing.

“Last weekend was a good example for us but there’s another game against the Stormers that lies ahead and hopefully we keep going.”

Last weekend, as he refers to, was that 37-16 victory over Munster as Ulster were comfortable winners over their inter-provincial rivals at Kingspan Stadium in the last-eight to set up their trip to Cape Town to face the DHL Stormers in the semi-finals (2pm).

It’s a homecoming for Vermeulen, who spent six years with Western Province and the Stormers between 2009 and 2015, but things have changed since he last darkened the doors of Newlands – the prime example being that Newlands is no longer their home.

Indeed, it has been a tumultuous time for South African rugby, with their franchises booted out of Super Rugby while simultaneously facing a massive talent drain and facing financial crisis during the Covid-19 pandemic. And yet here they sit with two teams in the final four of the URC having risen above those challenges, much to Vermeulen’s delight.

“Everyone knows the situation Western Province rugby was in, moving from Newlands to a new stadium, it was a difficult uproot and task for them. The way the players have come out of that and said they’re just going to play the game is great to see,” he smiled.

“Obviously they got some older players back, some experience to give the younger guys some guidance. There’s good cohesion in their squad. They’re doing exceptionally well. They’ve surprised quite a number of teams and people out there and that’s a good thing.

rugby-new-zealand-south-africa Vermeulen in action for the Springboks. Source: AAP/PA Images

“You talk about South African teams in the competition – well, look at the quarter-finals, there were three South African teams in there. It’s great to see, and it’s great to see the standard of rugby in South Africa, everyone is pushing for spots. And it was a nail-biter in the end in the Bulls v Sharks game.

“For the national selectors it’s also a good thing. We’ll have to wait and see what happens, but from a South African point of view it’s good to see the guys battling up there for a semi-final spot and also for maybe going all the way.”

Speaking of those battles for national team spots, Vermeulen himself is likely to be involved in the Springboks squad for their upcoming summer Tests against Wales and tomorrow he will come up against a man who is going to be one of his direct competitors for that No.8 jersey in the form of the irrepressible Evan Roos, who has lit up the URC in his debut season.

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“There’s big talk about him and he’s an exceptional player, he plays well in the Stormers set-up, he’s a big ball-carrier for them,” praised Vermeulen of the URC Dream Team nominee.

“We play completely different styles. He’s out and running in the backline from lineouts and things like that, where I’m with the forwards. It’s a whole different game-plan. You can maybe match him and Nick Timoney or him and Marcus (Rea) against one another.

“He’s been really influential in their game plan and he’s racked up a couple of man of the match performances. It’s really good for them, he’s playing well and hopefully he gets an opportunity in the national squad. If you play well you need to get an opportunity somewhere else and hopefully it’s national colours.”

Of course, as much as his national pride shines through, Vermeulen is in no mood for the Stormers to be the ones booking their place in the final of the URC. He’s been made aware in no uncertain terms what a first trophy since 2006 would mean in his new adopted home in Belfast.

“This squad, the organisation, the fans, it would mean everything for them to get their hands on silverware. I think it’s time for this team to compete and contend for that position,” he insists.

“We’ve got an opportunity now to put our hands on that and we’re just a step or two away. We’re going to give our everything and hopefully get the results.”

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