Out of Africa and into Devon life
By Neale Harvey
Premiership signing-of-the-season Jacques Vermeulen believes his ultra-successful move to England can pave the way towards following other South African stars into his national side.
Along with lock-cum-back rower Jannes Kirsten, workhorse No.7 Vermeulen is inspiring Exeter’s drive towards a Premiership and European ‘double’ and is living proof of Chiefs’ director of rugby Rob Baxter’s enduring expertise in the transfer market.
Recruitment failures are few at Sandy Park, so when Vermeulen got wind of Exeter’s interest last February and sought advice from Nick Easter, the former England No.8 and his then coach at the Sharks, the decision to head overseas came easy.
Premiership-based compatriots Faf de Klerk, Vincent Koch, Francois Louw and Cobus Reinach all featured in South Africa’s recent World Cup success and Vermeulen, 24, is stepping up his game as he aims to follow that gilded quartet into the Test arena.
Vermeulen said: “I went to Nick Easter early on to ask his advice and he told me I couldn’t have asked for a better club to come to. There are a lot of good clubs in England, but I knew Exeter were looking at me closely and Nick assured me that if I wanted to go, I’d learn a lot – and that’s certainly been the case for me so far.
“I feel I’m getting better by the day, learning from the coaches and players here, so it’s been a great decision. It was a big thing for me to come here because I’m close to my family in South Africa, but I’ve been happy to come into such a good team like Exeter and the success of South African guys coming into the Premiership in recent years is clear.
“A lot of guys have made it into the Springboks from here so to come to a team that’s won the Premiership before was an easy decision to make.
“Chiefs have been top of the table year after year, playing brilliant rugby that suits my style, and the coaching and everything off the field has been great. It’s a place where I can achieve my ambitions.”
Having started 17 games to date, Vermeulen’s efforts will not have gone unnoticed back home – and neither will those of indomitable team-mate Kirsten.
Premiership rugby suits South Africans and the evidence of their value to English clubs can be found in two telling statistics: in season 2014/15, there were just 13 South Africans in the Premiership, ten of whom were at Saracens; five years on, there are 46 spread across the dozen top-flight clubs who appreciate their physicality, durability and desire.
Former Bulls man Kirsten, 26, whose positional adaptability has made him a key impact player for Exeter this season, says: “I went to the Bulls straight from school and was there eight years, but I always watched the Premiership and it’s a world-class competition.
“You’ve only got to look at the English team, which is full of world-class players despite them losing the World Cup final, so when I was looking for a new challenge, the style of rugby here suits me well and I’ve always wanted to play rugby in England.
“You can’t expect to walk into any team and I’ve started less than Jacques, but it’s great to be part of Exeter’s squad every week and I’m learning a lot. It helps being able to play in the second and back row and Chiefs are happy that I cover both roles.”
With crowds in Super Rugby dwindling, Kirsten reveals another big reason why moving to England was so attractive. He added: “South African grounds are quite big and they struggle to fill them, so for me these smaller stadiums in England are much more practical and the type of fervent atmosphere the fans create on match days has been great.
“Personally, the atmosphere at grounds here, especially at Chiefs, is the best I’ve experienced.”
So far, so good for Exeter’s dynamic South African duo, but do Chiefs have the squad to finish the job they have started by claiming the double?
Vermeulen has no doubts. He added: “I think the depth of Exeter’s squad is really good and the coaches expect anyone who comes into the team on any given weekend to perform at the same level as everyone else. Every guy is important to the club and even when we rotate the team, the standard of the squad we put out is still really high.
“It’s been good to measure up against some of the best players in England. When we played Saracens at Christmas they had a lot of England boys in their team, so it was an amazing experience to beat them and prove we have that top-quality.”