On the eve of the United Rugby Championship semi-final between the Stormers and Ulster this past weekend, Springbok number eight Duane Vermeulen sat down with a wry smile as he chatted to the media. The experienced World Cup winner – always affable and engaging – thoughtfully and thoroughly answered each question thrown at him by the attending rugby ‘hacks’, and it didn’t take long for an inevitable one to come his way: “What are your thoughts on Evan Roos?”
The athletic number eight has undoubtedly been the Stormers’ breakthrough star in the URC, producing one Man of the Match performance after another. In fact, his form has been so infectious that Bok boss Rassie Erasmus broke from the tradition of avoiding singling out players when he admitted midway through the season that Roos could simply no longer be ignored at national level.
The young loose forward was duly included in the Springboks’ first squad of the year, which was unveiled on Saturday, while Vermeulen – ironically – was unavailable for selection as he takes time off to treat a niggling knee injury.
The Bok coaches will know that there are limited spots available among a trusted and experienced group of loose forwards, with Vermeulen still likely to be the incumbent at number eight when he returns to fitness. Last year, back-up was capably provided by Kwagga Smith and Jasper Wiese, but there is little doubt that Roos has done everything in his power to kick down that Bok selection door.
Fan of Roos
Vermeulen knows a competitor when he sees one, and isn’t afraid to admit he forms part of the Evan Roos admirers club.
“There’s big talk about him and he is an exceptional player,” Vermeulen acknowledges. “He plays well in the Stormers set-up and is a big ball-carrier for them, but we do have completely different styles. He’s generally up and running in the backline from lineouts and things like that, where I’m with the forwards.”
That caveat is an interesting one. To borrow some so-called ‘Rassie-speak’, the Boks love to drag opponents to the “gutter”, and that’s where Vermeulen reigns supreme. At the breakdown, on defence, and at the collision points, the influential Bok number eight so often leads the charge for South Africa.
Roos has impressed with his mobility, ball-carrying and tackle-fight, fitting perfectly into a Stormers gameplan built around speed and work rate.
“He’s been really influential in the Stormers’ game plan and racked up the Man of the Match performances,” Vermeulen commented. “It’s really good for them, he’s playing well and hopefully he gets an opportunity at national level.
“I will play the way I normally play,” he added. “You don’t have to be extravagant, you just have to do your job, and people will select you for doing your job, not being extravagant or a showboat. Some guys are really good at their skill and if you have a specific skill that you are well equipped with, then use it. I know my game.”
That point was quite clearly demonstrated in Saturday’s URC semi-final, with Ulster actually succeeding in dragging the Stormers into the so-called “gutter”, and for large parts of the contest it was Vermeulen who was far more influential in the tight exchanges.
With this in mind, it will be interesting to see how the Springboks integrate Roos into Test-match action, with an impact role off the bench likely to be a good starting point.
Ultimately, it’s no surprise that Roos has also won over another fan in former Springbok Bok Skinstad, who was similarly renowned for his speed and running game.
“We watch Evan Roos week in and week out. We are constantly going: ‘Jeepers, how strong is he!’,” Skinstad enthused. “He just gets those extra three or four metres and then sometimes a little offload which creates the gap. Once you are in behind the opposition’s gainline, then you can break it open.
“Evan Roos fits into that (Stormers) pack perfectly. He has been well positioned by John Dobson and Rito Hlungwani as a ball-carrier in the wider channels. He is an amazing finisher when he has five or six metres to go. He is hard to stop.
“I think, for the Springboks, he would be an asset. I am not sure if he can suddenly start in that position because they have had amazing loose-forward success over the last couple of years. I would imagine, that if he is in and around the squad, coming off the bench, he would want to impact the team and it would be good for everybody involved.”
Indeed, it will be interesting to see whether Roos earns immediate inclusion in the Boks’ matchday 23 for the three-Test series against Wales. Yet, whatever the case may be, there is no doubt that the 22-year-old looks set for a long and illustrious career, which will surely include Test honours sooner rather than later.
“I think it’s every rugby player’s dream in South Africa to play for the Springboks,” Roos reiterates. “It might sound a bit cliche, but I really try to just take things week for week, and not make things bigger than they are actually are.
“I slipped up a bit against Leinster, because I feel I made a few mistakes,” he added with a wry smile, in reference to a moment of off-the ball ill-discipline. “But I’ve learned from that, to not make myself bigger than the game and to literally take things week to week.”
And when Roos does eventually, inevitably, pull that Springbok jersey over his head, it will signal a remarkable journey for a young man who very nearly gave up the game.
“I play with a sense of desperation when I carry the ball forward. Not too many people know this but, two years back before I joined the Stormers, I thought about giving up rugby to go study because things weren’t working out at the Sharks. But then I got this lifeline at Western Province, and I’m so grateful for it and just glad to be playing again.
“In a recent team meeting, (coach John Dobson) compared us to “absurd heroes” – players who did not receive much playing chances at other unions, who did not get much rhythm at their previous teams and are now playing well together.
“I think everyone’s just comfortable here (at the Stormers). You can just be yourself. No one forces or pressures you to behave in a certain way. You’re free to express yourself. Everyone’s got a common goal and that’s to win this competition, of course. And we’re all working towards that. I think our management team’s done very well in that regard.”