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'I was just in a bad spot in South Africa, my contract ended...'

By Kim Ekin
(Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

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Duane Vermeulen has explained the circumstances that prompted him to sign for Ulster last September while in Australia with the Springboks during the Rugby Championship. The 35-year-old World Cup winner was apparently in a state of flux at the time about his future. His deal with Jake White’s Bulls had ended and it seemed likely he was set to return to Japan where he had previously spent two seasons playing with the Kubota Spears.

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However, a call from Ireland changed everything. With Marcell Coetzee having quit Ulster for a return to the Bulls and a deal to sign Fijian Leone Nakarawa having collapsed after a medical, Dan McFarland was on the prowl for a big-name overseas signing and with the United Rugby Championship season about to get underway, he decided Vermeulen was exactly what the Irish province needed.   

Terms were agreed and by the end of November following his Autumn Nations Series campaign for the Springboks, Vermeulen flew into Belfast to begin a stay that now has him spoiling for progress to the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-finals. 

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Defending champions Toulouse are in town on Saturday night trying to claw back a six-point round of 16 first-leg deficit and Vermeulen can’t wait to repay Ulster by helping them to get the result they need to advance to a last-eight game against either Munster or Exeter.  

Rolled out to the local media in advance of the arrival of Toulouse in Ireland, Vermeulen explained the background to the situation that brought him got Belfast in the first place. “It actually kind of shocked me as well,” he said about how he wound up in Ulster. “I was just in a bad spot in South Africa. My contract ended and I was looking at going back to Japan.

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“Then this offer came up and I sat down with my wife and said, ‘Listen, let’s do this as a family, one last Hail Mary before I retire’. I’ve been away from my family for the past seven years and people don’t realise how difficult that is. But we sat down and we said, ‘Let’s do it together, do it as a family, and when we go back we can all sit down and say this was the last step’.

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“There would have been one or two (other offers) in the pipeline, but I had to make an immediate decision. I could have stayed at the Bulls, but I decided to try something else. That’s the biggest thing. I had been in South Africa, played for the Bulls, Stormers, and Cheetahs – life is about experiences as well and not just being stuck in one place. 

“A lot of people are really comfortable doing that but I love to move around, learn a bit more. Everywhere I go I learn from different players and cultures. It’s a journey. You’ve got to love the journey. That played a major role in my decision to come here.”

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