Scotland Rugby World Cup: South Africa very wary of Finn Russell ahead of opener - ‘magician with massive playbook in his head’
Vermeulen, the back row veteran, believes stymieing Russell will be the key to stopping Scotland as the Springboks open their defence of the Webb Ellis trophy. The stand-off is in good form going into the tournament but so too is the South African No 8 who, like Russell, is playing in his third World Cup. The pair cross swords at the 2015 tournament, with the Boks beating Scotland 34-16 at St James’ Park. Vermeulen doesn’t expect the Scots to be radically different in style from eight years ago even if rugby has gone through big changes – but he is wary of Russell’s sleight of hand.
“Everything has evolved since then,” he said. “The game has become a lot different, the coaching style, the referees, the laws – everything has changed. But some teams always stick to things that make them strong and we know Scotland love to play on quick ball and Finn Russell is the kingpin in that position. If he can get front-foot ball Scotland will be dangerous. It will be a difficult task but everyone wants a good start in the opening match of the World Cup. It’s us or them and you want to win your first one.”
Vermeulen, 37, is back in favour with South Africa after an injury-interrupted few years and he and his back-row colleagues will be tasked with stopping Russell, a player he has admired for some time. “Oh jeez, he is a magician with ball in hand,” said the former Ulster player. “On the front foot, he’s really good and he’s got a massive playbook in his head and is just a fantastic individual player. We really have to sit down and have our video sessions and have a look at what he does on the field and how often he does these things.”
While Vermeulen expects Scotland to play fast, with Russell pulling the strings, there is unlikely to be anything radically different in the way South Africa approach the game, with Jacques Nienaber’s side relying heavily on their traditionally strong pack. “We pride ourselves on our set-piece,” said Vermeulen, the man of the match in the 2019 World Cup final win over England, who will try to impose the Boks’ trademark dominance at the lineout and scrum in the hope of cutting off supplies to Russell. “Guys can become frustrated if they don’t get the ball on their terms, and then you have to make changes and find solutions,” he added. “It’s the same on our side - we’d have to find solutions if they get front-foot ball. It’s going to be an interesting game.”
Vermeulen is now without a club after two seasons playing in the URC with Ulster. He felt re-energised by the move to Europe but conceded that this was probably his last World Cup. “Before I joined Ulster I was in a tough spot, the body was acting up and I was thinking I maybe should have called it back in 2019,” he said. “The coaches reassured me, convinced to play on and said I could still play a role in this squad. If you think about it, this is probably the last one. I don’t think I’ll push it to 2027 but you never know! It’s probably that last bit of energy that is in you and you want to push and finish on a high, and that’s where I am at the moment.”
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