- Ruan Vermaak’s move from the Lions to Japan highlights SA rugby’s looming problem of now losing both established players as well as promising rookies.
- Former Lions coach Johan Ackermann, who recruited the 22-year-old, believes the lack of restrictions on overseas-based players for the Springboks plays a major role in youngsters going overseas earlier.
- Vermaak, who only played 13 competitive matches for the Lions, joined Cobus Wiese and Tyrone Green as prominent rookies not staying to develop in SA first.
As thorny as South African rugby’s player exodus remains, a rather embittered supporters base could at least take solace from the continued stream of promising young players stepping in to fill the breach.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic and the local game’s Industry Strategic Plan has heralded a change.
While most of the Springboks stars opted to stick it out and absorb significant pay cuts, promising players who only recently started to make their mark in senior rugby went abroad.
It raises a spectre of a serious double whammy in future – the continued loss of key experienced players as well as rookies meant to step up as their replacements.
Stormers utility forward Cobus Wiese and Lions winger Tyrone Green were arguably the most prominent youngsters to depart, but the men from Ellis Park also had to contend with Ruan Vermaak waving goodbye.
The 22-year-old former Junior Springbok has been snapped up by former Lions and Gloucester coach Johan Ackermann, who’ll continue his development in Japan with the NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes.
Frustratingly, Vermaak – who only made 13 senior appearances for the Lions – was one of the few players in the squad bulky enough (1.99m, 108kg) to provide oomph in an underpowered pack.
“He’s still very much in the infancy of his career,” Ackermann told Sport24.
“The fact that there’s no more criteria in terms of Springbok selection for overseas-based players will play a role for these youngsters. A player like Ruan came now come over to Japan, get stronger and develop and still decide at 24 or 25 to come back to South Africa, play Super Rugby and maybe even stake an international claim.”
Ironically, Vermaak’s recruitment mirrors that of former Lions teammate Lourens Erasmus, the 27-year-old lock who in 2019 through a combination of factors decided to abandon his plan of dividing his time between Johannesburg and Osaka and chose to play in Japan full-time.
The mobile Erasmus had his moments at Ellis Park, yet the general impression was one of unfulfillment.
“The pace of Japanese rugby is quite quick,” said Ackermann.
“I asked Docomo what they believe our requirements were and they noted that we need another lock/flanker like Lourens. I know Ruan from his junior years at Monument and the Lions. I always believed he had potential. I asked him if he would be interested and he responded in kind.”
Ackermann makes no secret of the fact that he favours mobile locks who arguably punch above their weight a bit in terms of physicality, evidenced by his past selections of Bok stalwart Franco Mostert and Erasmus.
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“I’ve always enjoyed Ruan’s way of playing. He gets himself around the park. His experience at flank is also valuable, because we had to take into consideration that Japanese rugby has regulations related to how many overseas players can be on the field at a given time on the field. So we needed someone versatile,” he said.
“I’m really excited to work with him. We need guys at our club that we can integrate for two or three years and gain some continuity. I really believe Rory (Duncan, assistant coach) and I can get the best out of him.”
South African rugby though will have mixed feelings about that.
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