Gloucester-based Ruan Ackermann is the sort of robust loose forward who needs to power his way on to the Springbok radar, writes CRAIG LEWIS for SARugbyMag
Where has it all gone wrong just recently?
In the middle of June, a sense of euphoria (and relief) was bubbling intently under the surface as the Boks bullied England into submission to claim a 23-12 win in Bloemfontein and secure a series victory.
Fast forward 12 weeks, and that bubbling optimism around the Boks has been very quickly replaced with predictable cynicism from a support base that is sick and tired of seeing the two-time world champions coming out on the losing side.
The nature of the recent results in Mendoza and Brisbane have stung. The Boks will be feeling the pain and the pressure, while Rassie Erasmus faces a true test of his self-belief in the plans that have been put in place.
Yet, when reflecting on how the Boks have stumbled since that rousing victory in mid-June, one can’t help but feel that there is one key point of difference: Duane Vermeulen.
The efforts of the 32-year-old were simply immense over the series against England. In the second Test in particular, there was a physicality and fire in his eyes that almost single-handedly seemed to send the English retreating with their collective tails between their legs.
By the time he turned up for the post-match press conference in Cape Town, though, he looked beyond exhausted. While nursing a limp, Vermeulen took the opportunity to confirm that he would be heading to Japan, rendering him unavailable for the Rugby Championship.
It was a move based largely around the need to give his body a break after carrying a heavy workload for Toulon before heading into battle with the Boks.
His absence has been sorely felt for more reason than one. He’s a leader, defensive organiser, physical force, lineout option and powerful breakdown exponent all rolled into one.
Vermeulen’s departure has had a knock-on effect on the spine of the Bok team and disrupted the loose-trio balance largely because South Africa’s once-bountiful pipeline of back-row bruisers has begun to dry up.
This brings us to Ackermann. Just this past weekend, the former Lions star dished up a timely reminder of just what he is capable of as he produced a rousing two-try performance as Gloucester played out to a draw against Bath.
Ackermann’s form fluctuated in his first season with the English club last year, but his father and coach, Johan, has hinted that he looks to be a man on a mission as the new English Premiership season gathers momentum.
The 22-year-old has all the natural ability, physical attributes and youthful energy to add some much-needed dynamism to the Boks’ back-row options.
This is not to say Ackermann should be rushed into the Rugby Championship squad mid-tournament, but when one looks at overseas-based players who could add value to the Springboks’ cause ahead of the fast-approaching World Cup, he fits firmly into that category.
The good news is that Vermeulen should also be back in the Bok squad for the end-of-year tour and is set to play an important mentorship role in the lead-up to the next World Cup. In such a scenario, a player such as Ackermann would be a massive benefactor.
The onus is now on Ackermann to continue knocking loudly on that creaking Springbok door, particularly at a time when injuries to Cyle Brink and Jean-Luc du Preez have again highlighted a dearth of depth at blindside flank.