Ludik, Pienaar and Van der Merwe relishing seeing Bok in white
When Ulster were courting Louis Ludik’s one-time University of Johannesburg team-mate Duane Vermeulen a few months back, the former Ravenhill favourite was relieved he wasn’t part of the delegation asked to make a pitch to the star Springbok who will pull on the white jersey for a first time in Clermont this evening.
While Bryn Cunningham has joked that he sold Vermeulen on the idea of Ulster with the promise of the world’s best golf courses and year-round sunshine, had the 35-year-old sought some local knowledge to deduce which of those pledges was fact and which fiction, it would have been a role reversal from over a decade prior.
It was back in 2010 that Ludik had decided to leave the Lions with the Sharks, Bulls and Stormers all circling. The latter, then coached by Rassie Erasmus, had Vermeulen making the sales calls to his old pal only for him to ultimately opt for the Sharks.
“All these years after when I didn’t take his advice, I don’t think it would have gone well if I’d had to sell Ulster to him,” Ludik laughed.
While it’s some 17 years now since they were together at university, Ludik witnessed plenty of the attributes that have helped the World Cup winner to such lofty status in the game.
“It’s weird because we had another eight-man that was also really good and they were in competition,” remembered Ludik, who retired last summer after seven years with Ulster.
“So initially, Duane didn’t actually make the Lions Under-19 team out of university.
“But he always knew how good he was and he probably thought to himself, ‘These guys aren’t really appreciating me’ so he left for the Pumas and people were really shocked.
“You were thinking, ‘Is he going to really go and play senior rugby at 19-years-old?’ That took a massive leap of faith to go and do but from a young age, he knew exactly what he wanted to do and what his value was.
“Obviously from there, he just took off. From the Pumas to the Cheetahs and then the Stormers he just performed and performed. If not for a few injuries he would have been capped by the Springboks earlier than he was. And since then, well, he’s done incredibly well, obviously. His achievements speak for themselves.”
Although Ulster fans have had to wait patiently for Vermeulen’s first run-out for the side, initially while he fulfilled touring commitments for South Africa and the Barbarians, and then for a further week while he isolated following a positive Covid-19 test, Ludik believes much of what Vermeulen can bring will be felt off the field as much as on it.
“Everybody adores him,” he added. “He just leaves absolutely everything on the field and that’s why I think people here will love him. He’ll make a huge impact with Ulster. I think the team is going in the right direction but with him, a player who knows how to win from the Springboks, bringing that experience into such a young Ulster team will make a big difference.
“Hopefully he’ll play a lot of games but even if he doesn’t, the example he sets and his experience that he’ll bring will be a big addition to the squad.”
It’s an opinion shared by Ulster’s greatest ever import, Ruan Pienaar. While the emergence of the now twice-capped Nick Timoney — who was left out of the match day ‘23’ altogether for the visit from Toulouse 12 months ago but is now one of the side’s most important players — has altered the picture somewhat, Vermeulen’s arrival is ostensibly as a replacement for Marcell Coetzee.
The rugged if oft-injured back-rower was a brutally effective ball carrier and breakdown presence for the province before departing for the Bulls last spring and they certainly missed his physicality in the close quarters when losing to Ospreys last weekend.
As a brilliant defensive presence and world-class mauler, Vermeulen brings a different set of qualities to the No.8 jersey but that same physicality will be a key asset. Again, though, it is the more intangible qualities that Pienaar, whose final three years as a Bok overlapped with the start of Vermeulen’s Test career, believes will be to the fore.
“To get someone as abrasive as what they had in Marcell Coetzee but with that added experience and leadership and calmness, it’s a very exciting signing,” said the 37-year-old, who is still turning out for the Sharks back home four and a half years on from his Ulster departure.
“He’s been around a long time and achieved a great deal in the game. In the big games he’ll bring a bit of that leadership and calmness. He’s one of the best eights in the world.”
Contracted until the summer of 2023, Vermeulen’s time in Belfast will be relatively short when compared to some of his compatriots but Franco van der Merwe, who made his international debut against the All Blacks in a pack alongside Ulster’s newest signing, is sure he’ll hit the ground running mid-season.
“It’s actually a privilege to talk about Duane because he’s one of the very best,” said the former lock who spent three years in Belfast between 2014 and ’17.
“Some world-class players, they’re not as good off the pitch as on it but not him.
“He’ll settle quickly and I think the Ulster people will really make him feel at home.
“When I first came into the Springboks in 2012, he was injured and I remember when he came back in.
“People were very excited but he was calm all week, very calm, and then went out and was man of the match like he hadn’t been away. At Ulster, he’ll slot in so well I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s man of the match in his first game.
“He’s going to be great.”