The Vodacom United Rugby Championship resumes this weekend and Kingspan Stadium will showcase Saturday’s blockbuster clash between two Springbok heavyweights when Ulster host the Vodacom Bulls.
No 8 Elrigh Louw has emerged as an exciting bruiser and one of the standout talents for the Vodacom Bulls since the inaugural Vodacom URC, while veteran Duane Vermeulen powers the Ulster defence with his abrasive physicality while lending experience as a stand-in captain.
An uncompromising player in the mould of Vermeulen, the two-Test-capped Louw has exploded onto the scene and into opposing ball-carriers, and marries a direct and physical style with dominant hits and the workrate to make an Ironman triathlete stand and applaud.
The 23-year-old has backed up his breakthrough season for the Vodacom Bulls in 2021-22 with another stellar campaign that should result in more game time for the Springboks after making his debut against Wales in July 2022.
Forming a formidable loose trio with ballhawk Marco van Staden and blindside flanker Cyle Brink, Louw has helped the Vodacom Bulls win eight matches after 15 rounds in the 2022-23 Vodacom URC, as last year’s losing finalists look to secure a place in the play-offs from sixth spot on the table with three rounds remaining.
Good mates off the field, Vermeulen and Louw famously got into a scuffle at training during the former’s stint at the Vodacom Bulls between 2019 and 2021, with the latter not backing down. Belfast is expected to host a repeat of these events when the two SA hard men meet at the gainline again on Saturday.
“The past two seasons were good,” Louw said. “I agree that the second season is much harder. Teams and other players know what to expect of you, and the public will put pressure on you because they know you can perform.
“But that has been the motivation for me to work harder and perform better.”
Meanwhile, 36-year-old Vermeulen is also known for his wrecking ball impact and the veteran delivered a reminder of his destructive influence when he led Ulster to a 31-24 bonus-point win against the Cell C Sharks in Durban that cut the gap on the second-placed DHL Stormers to just five points.
The former DHL Stormers and Vodacom Bulls thumper was colossal in the Vodacom URC clash, at one point storming away after a breakdown steal before sprawling fellow Bok Rohan Janse van Rensburg with a powerful fend.
Vermeulen has been a calming and seasoned presence for an Ulster side missing several players to 2023 Guinness Six Nations duty, and head coach Dan McFarland speaks glowingly of the grizzled 2019 World Cup winner.
“This is a guy who not long ago made three massive plays against the All Blacks. That is what Duane does – he is the best mauler in the world and when the team needs an important play to be made, he is the one who will make it happen,” McFarland said.
“He might not be the all singing, all dancing, carrying the ball 16 times a game player [of his youth] but, man, the influence he has on games is phenomenal.”
With the volume of talent pushing through for the Springboks and the Rugby World Cup in France just six months’ away, Vermeulen will be determined to make a huge statement on Saturday against one of SA’s most highly-rated prospects.