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Thursday 26 January 2023 Dublin: 5°C
Johan Rynners/INPHO
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'Marquee signing' Vermeulen will have big Ulster impact, says Ferris
The arrival of the South African icon is a huge boost to the northern province.

WHEN ROCKY ELSOM arrived at Leinster, he linked up with a league-winning side determined to translate it on the European scene, and then coach Michael Cheika hoped the Australian would be the final piece of the puzzle required.

As it turned out, the flanker was so influential in a blue jersey that he was named man of the match in two of Leinster’s three European play-off games, including the final win over Leicester Tigers at Murrayfield. As far as the impact Cheika hoped for, he got it and then some – Elsom was named European Player of the Year and was one of the driving forces behind the province’s success.

That kind of impact is what Ulster hope they have signed in new No 8 Duane Vermeulen, the 35-year-old 54-time capped Springbok joining on a two-year deal after the upcoming autumn international slate and filling the sizable gap left in their back row by the departure of Marcell Coetzee last spring.

And the province’s legendary flanker Stephen Ferris believes the World Cup winner can have an Elsom-like influence at Kingspan Stadium as they go in search of a first trophy since 2005.

“Marquee signings like that can really contribute so much because sometimes it’s that extra two or three per cent that you need in the big games,” explained Ferris, speaking at Premier Sports’ launch of their coverage of the United Rugby Championship this season.

“Ulster have got to finals and semi-finals over the last few years and they’ve come up short, and people are then thinking ‘these young players, they can’t cut it at this level’. Then you bring in someone like Vermeulen, who has probably won 70 or 80% of those finals through his career, and it breeds confidence through the team.

“I think he’ll have a huge impact. If they can get the ball rolling, get the fans on-side, and the way this competition is with the quarters, semi-finals, and finals. you can really generate some momentum.

“I wouldn’t want to be going up against him, and those guys at Leinster, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan, whoever is playing, they know who good he is and, no disrespect to some of the younger lads, but you want Duane Vermeulen in those big games.”

Signing Vermeulen represents a major shock for Ulster, not just given his ability but also for the reason that nobody was generally aware that the Nelspruit man was even on the market this close to the start of the season.

Dan McFarland had alluded to the fact that the province were still on the look-out for a Coetzee replacement after his intended successor, Leone Nakarawa, failed a medical and saw his move fall through, but few would have predicted they’d go out and sign a two-time South African Player of the Year who was man of the match in the 2019 World Cup final.

It is believed that a few helping words from Ruan Pienaar helped the deal over the line but, even with the assistance of their former scrum-half, it is understood that Ulster managed to see off the superior financial pulling power of several interested Japanese and English teams to recruit Vermeulen, an impressive feat in itself.

stephen-ferris James Crombie / INPHO Stephen Ferris. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Now, rather than bemoaning the lack of a true replacement for Coetzee at Kingspan Stadium for the upcoming season, Ulster fans will be salivating at the prospect of a back row containing Vermuelen, recent Ireland cap Nick Timoney and one of Jordi Murphy or Sean Reidy.

While Coetzee’s fellow countryman will not be a like-for-like replacement in Ulster’s back row, there is no doubting the 35-year-old will shoulder a large portion of the ball carrying and will provide a new dimension to the province’s pack they were perhaps crying out for.

“It’s brilliant. A World Cup winner, vastly experienced and I think he’s the perfect player to come over here to Belfast where the weather won’t always be hard pitches and fast running rugby all year round,” added Ferris.

“He’s a slightly different player from Coetzee, he’s not just going to crash it up and give you front foot ball. He’s a brilliant maul defender, he’s a colossus of a man, he’s very steady at the back of a scrum, he can draw defenders and put boys into holes, he can get through contact and he’s a pretty good defender.

“For the fans it’s huge. What more can you say? It’s Duane Vermeulen and he’s coming to Belfast. I just can’t wait and I’m sure the fans can’t wait. There was so much disappointment over some things that have happened over the last year, and then Mick Kearney signs and you were hoping for the big lights, and then all of a sudden, ‘Duane Vermuelen has signed for Ulster.’

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“It’ll give everyone a lift. The boys will get behind him and he’ll get behind the boys.”

For those concerned about the likes of Timoney, who had a strong second half of last season to earn his first international call-up, or young players such as David McCann or Marcus Rea losing out on game time due to Vermuelen’s arrival, Ferris believes that won’t be a problem.

The Springbok sat out the recent British and Irish Lions Test series through an ankle injury and, like most abrasive No 8s in his ilk, has had a variety of minor niggles during his career, and Ferris believes he will need managed carefully, which should open up plenty of opportunities for others in the meantime.

“It’s not what he’s going to bring on the pitch but off it with those younger lads. Dan McFarland is very vocal about getting these young lads game time and I don’t think that you’re going to see Duane Vermeulen playing every week, he’s not going to play against Zebre, against Benetton on a Friday night,” explained the former Ireland and Lions flanker.

“They need to keep him fit and fresh for those big games.”

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