Springbok forward Duane Vermeulen faces a race against the clock to be fit for a three-Test series against the British and Irish Lions.

Johannesburg (AFP) - South Africa coach Jacques Nienaber said injured No. 8 Duane Vermeulen could be sidelined for “five to 16 weeks” after undergoing ankle surgery on Wednesday.

The 34-year-old forward, a pivotal figure when the Springboks won the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, hurt his ankle last weekend playing for his franchise, the Bulls.

“It is something players can come back from in anything from five to 16 weeks,” Nienaber said during a virtual media conference as South Africa prepare for a Test series against the British and Irish Lions.

The eagerly anticipated internationals will be played behind closed doors because of the coronavirus pandemic in Cape Town on July 24 and in Johannesburg on July 31 and August 7.

Nienaber said there were no immediate plans to call up a replacement for Vermeulen, with in-form Jasper Wiese from Leicester Tigers one option should the veteran be ruled out.

Vermeulen put on a brave front before the surgery, saying: “I’m not sure how long it means I’m out, but I am going to do everything in my power to be ready for the Lions.”

Nienaber said he was “cautiously optimistic” that centre Damian de Allende and lock RG Snyman, who play for Munster, will be available for the Lions series after being burnt in an accident last weekend.

The World Cup winners suffered burns to their legs, hands and faces along with teammates Mike Haley and South Africa-born CJ Stander.

De Allende said a Munster teammate had thrown petrol over a pit fire in Limerick, which led to a flammable can exploding.

“I have spoken to them and they are fine. Often, the first instinct is to ask whether they are ready to play, but you need to first check on their well-being,” said Nienaber.

Before tackling the Lions, the Springboks will face Georgia in warm-up matches on July 2 and 9 at venues to be announced.