Never write the Springboks off
December 13, 2010
Springboks coach Peter de Villiers was in relaxed mood following his side's season-ending victory over England at Twickenham © Getty Images
If the Springboks are taken as a yardstick, it would be quite easy to put 2010 down as an annus horribilus for South African rugby.
But while the national team is certainly the shop window of any major Test playing nation, judging it solely on that would mask some positive developments, not the least of which was an all-South African Super 14 final between the Bulls and Stormers.
That it was played in Soweto made the occasion all the more significant as the Bulls, faced with the scenario of Loftus Versfeld being handed over to Fifa ahead of football's World Cup, decided to break some new ground. This led to rugby's traditionally conservative support base in South Africa's north heading into a township on successive Saturdays - first for the semi-finals against the Crusaders and then for the final against the Stormers.
The Bulls won both matches at the Orlando Stadium comfortably, made some new friends and supporters and South Africans again reached out to one another in a way that has become custom when the country excels in the Rugby World Cup.
Life was apparently good in South African rugby. Just a few months earlier the South African Rugby Union (SARU) had even gone as far as renting a truck to parade their various trophies and a nightmare tour to Europe at the end of 2009 was viewed as a mere blip.
The international season also started well enough. There was a hastily arranged match against Wales in Cardiff that a below strength Springbok side won 34-31 before they thrashed France 42-17 at Newlands and then comfortably saw off Italy in a two-Test series. It was played four and won four, and no-one saw the nightmare that would unfold on South Africa's Tri-Nations tour coming.
However, the euphoria would soon die down as the Springboks were brutally exposed against New Zealand and Australia in the Tri-Nations. Whereas the All Blacks and Wallabies undoubtedly took big steps forward from 2009, South Africa had not successfully evolved their game in spite of the country's top regional sides making a good first of it in the Super 14.
There was the inevitable bleating about Irish referees, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time and five losses in six Tri-Nations matches point to the coaching staff having to take some responsibility.
It was against the backdrop that coach Peter de Villiers had his performance appraisal and assistant coaches Dick Muir and Gary Gold came perilously close to getting the sack. SARU had apparently already made the call to give them the chop when it dawned that they would not be able to find good replacements quickly enough for the end-of-season tour.
There were rumours of Western Province director of rugby Rassie Erasmus coming on board as a consultant and dividing his time between that and coaching the South Africa under-20 side, but he had not even submitted an application for the latter position.
And so the Boks headed for Britain and Ireland, with a tour from hell anticipated by supporters. Not only was morale in South African rugby low, but the injury list included several top and fringe players, including Fourie du Preez, Schalk Burger, John Smit, Gurthrö Steenkamp, Jaque Fourie and Andries Bekker.
In fact, so acute was the injury crisis that Bulls fullback Zane Kirchner was deployed as a makeshift outside centre opposite Brian O'Driscoll against Ireland. The foul weather played into South Africa's hands on the day and they should have won the game a lot more comfortably than 23-21, but some ill-judged substitutions nearly cost them.
The match against Wales was significant because Warren Gatland' side will also play the Springboks in a key group game at next year's World Cup. South Africa were at one stage down by 11 points, but showed their champion spirit to triumph 29-25, even if there were some clear deficiencies in their game. Not the least of that was their poor defence, which had already been evident in the Tri-Nations.
Having won two games, no-one quite saw the disaster in Scotland coming. However, the week would prove a messy one from beginning to end, with an announcement on the Monday that Chiliboy Ralepelle and Bjorn Basson had both returned positive tests for a banned stimulant. Bryan Habana broke his hand in training the very next day and defeat followed against an inspired Scotland team.
The coaching staff's head would be on the block again as the show headed into England. But this was a situation made for the Springboks.
England had started believing their own hype following their win over Australia, while South Africa were written off. It had been scripted for one of those classic backs-to-the-walls jobs by the Boks and they certainly produced.
The day belonged to the South African forwards, who bullied their English counterparts. While South Africa's attacking play was poor, they eventually pummelled their opponents into submission in impressive fashion, prompting suggestions that they have a blueprint for the defence of their World Cup.
It sounds implausible, but consider for a moment the level of experience South Africa will have available when all their top players are fit. Former Wallaby coach Eddie Jones for one predicted that the Springboks would automatically look a lot better once Du Preez returns from injury and he is probably right. The genius scrum-half had missed the entire international season through injury.
If you add Du Preez, Jaque Fourie and Frans Steyn in his preferred fullback role to the nucleus of the pack that beat England, you have a very good side indeed.
De Villiers will also have to confront the riddle of integrating Smit back into the side. Bismarck du Plessis is clearly a much better hooker and Victor Matfield's leadership proved inspired on the end-of-season tour.
In retrospect 2010 will probably go down as a sobering year for South African rugby, though the victory against England at Twickenham served as a reminder ahead of next year's World Cup that you can never quite write the Springboks off.
© ESPN EMEA Ltd
With the Lions' tour to Australia fast-approaching, ESPN's Austin Healey and Mark Durden-Smith sat down to share their memories of the 2001 trip Down Under
Ask John answers questions on the Leopards' tour to Italy in 1974, brotherly Test sides, Pat McGrath, England's games against the Barbarians and Jacques Brunel
"We were only five metres away in the last Test of getting that try and with Jonny's inevitable conversion, we'd have won it." Tom Hamilton talks to Lions fullback Matt Perry