Duane a gentle giant family man

6 Jul 22 | Profiles

If it wasn’t for his mother, he would not have been a Springbok, says Duane Vermeulen, one of the most feared ball carriers in rugby. He spoke exclusively to Izak du Plessis about his career, life and family.

He is a giant of 1.93 meters, weighing in at about 120kg, yet he’s got a boyish gentleness in his voice and eyes, and he calls me oom, like the young men of the diep platteland do when they greet you in town.

Nelspruit, the town where Duane was born on 3 July 1986, is not exactly a small town anymore. Nowadays it is a small city known as Mbombela, but the Afrikaans people here still expect their children to show this kind of respect to older people, even when they are the world’s best rugby players.

His voice carries an even deeper respect when he talks about his mother, Estelien, and her role in his rugby career. “My dad died when I was eight years old and my sister only two years old. So, my mother had to be everything. She had to do all the school runs on her own and she gave her best to support us at every sporting event, from athletics to rugby, despite difficult times,” says Duane.

Today the product of Estelien’s effort and time is playing his rugby for Ulster in Northern Ireland. The announcement on 16 September 2021 came as a bit of a surprise.

“My contract with the Blue Bulls was not renewed due to a couple of reasons. It became a bit of an issue when I told the coaching team that I would not practice whilst not having a contract, because the risks were too high,” says Duane.

It was then that his agent informed him that Ulster had showed some interest in his services a couple of months earlier. The agent told the management of Ulster at that time that Duane wouldn’t be interested and never discussed it with him.

“When the problem about my contract came up, he then informed me that Ulster made an offer to sign me up. My wife and I discussed it and the rest is history.”

According to Duane they had to plan their schedule very well to make this work. Ezél and their two sons, Anru and Zian, are currently back at their Cape Town home because Duane was travelling between Northern Ireland and South Africa for Ulster’s games in the United Rugby Championship. This will also be the case for the Springboks’ upcoming tests against Wales, New Zealand, Australia, and Argentina and their end-of-the
-year-tour to France, England, and Ireland.

“It would have made no sense having them in Belfast when I am not there most of the time. We decided to let them stay in South Africa where they have a strong support system,” says Duane.

Their plan is to settle in Belfast after his international responsibilities and for the remainder of his contract with Ulster. When Duane is in South Africa, he takes over the school runs. He would have preferred if Anru and Zian chose other sporting disciplines than rugby.

“All the injuries up to now, and the effect of it on my body, made me hope they wouldn’t want to play rugby, but alas. I had to attend my first school rugby match the other day, which was quite an experience. Because of my career I sometimes miss out on important events.”

Like all couples, Duane and Ezél have their differences, but they don’t have the luxury of pondering on these for too long due to the limited time they have together. “That is why communication between us is very important, as well as time together. We try to make date nights without the children, and we put in extra effort to attend to our emotional needs,” says Duane.

Duane’s career, which started in 2005 at the Pumas, took him all over the world in appearances for teams like the Free State Cheetahs, Stormers, Toulon, Kubota Spears in Japan, Blue Bulls, and the Springboks. One would be forgiven for assuming there can’t be much left to be ticked off on his bucket list.

But Duane Vermeulen still has a lot of big dreams. Due to injuries, he missed out on playing against the British and Irish Lions when they toured South Africa in 2021, but he still has his eye on the Rugby World Cup in 2023, hoping to win it for a second time in a row. The other dream he hopes to achieve is playing against New Zealand in his hometown in August. “This will be kind of full circle, because a test against New Zealand is always special, but the possibility of running onto the field in front of the people I grew up with, will be even more special,” says Duane.

“My friends have already bought tickets for that game, now I must just get selected for the team,” he says laughing.

The most important dream, however, is to be there for his family when he finally retires from rugby. “The World Cup in 2023 will probably be my swan song. Then I want to be there for my wife and my children. Then I want to attend every rugby game, every school event, because I did not have a dad doing that when I was a child. My children must know their dad was there for them.”

By the sound of it, it won’t be too difficult to achieve. After his very long stint on the global stage the giant with a boyish gentleness is planning on settling down in Deneysville, a small village next to the Vaal Dam.

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