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Stephen Nell is a rugby writer based in Cape Town and works primarily for the Die Burger newspaper. He has been contributing to ESPNscrum since 2005.
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Respectable return for Springboks
Stephen Nell
December 22, 2008
Peter De Villiers chats to the media, August 28, 2008
Next year is set to be a real test for Peter de Villiers and his Springboks © Getty Images
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Nothing stirs the South African rugby soul quite like a resounding victory over England, and it's mainly thanks to that that Springbok coach Peter de Villiers got a positive review from his employers at the end of 2008.

However, in spite of the 42-6 thumping of a shockingly weak English side concluding the first unbeaten northern hemisphere tour since 1997, South Africa should honestly reflect on the season as one of lost opportunities.

They started the season as the undisputed number one side in world rugby and were ready to dominate on the back of a deserved Rugby World Cup triumph. It seemed a foregone conclusion that Heyneke Meyer would succeed Jake White as Bok coach, but instead in an historic move South Africa appointed their first black coach in De Villiers.

Given his lack of experience at a high level it seemed a risky move, but he had enjoyed success at age group level and the quality of South Africa's players has often been able to paper over many cracks.

The season started brightly enough as South Africa put away under-strength touring sides from Wales and Italy, but the Tri-Nations was an emotional rollercoaster, with a first ever victory over New Zealand in Dunedin courtesy of Ricky Januarie's brilliant late solo try the highlight.

It squared the series in New Zealand at 1-1, but the good feeling did not last long as the Springboks were beaten by Australia in Perth and after an impressive one-off Test against Argentina proceeded to drop home Tri-Nations games against the All Blacks in Cape Town and Wallabies in Durban.

It was the manner of those defeats that led to immediate speculation about De Villiers' future. He had started off the international season talking a big game about the running style the team would adopt under him, but it soon became apparent that the players were not comfortable with his philosophy.

Just as it seemed the writing was on the wall, however, the Boks went back to structure and blew Australia away 53-8 in a dead rubber in Johannesburg. It would not change the fact that South Africa were to finish last in the Tri-Nations, but the victory was so impressive that there would be no further speculation about De Villiers's future on the rugby front.

However, off-field issues also crept in, with rumours of a "sex-tape" being used to blackmail De Villiers into keeping a certain player (presumed to be Luke Watson) in the team surfacing in the press. There were swift denials on all fronts and the coach put it down to a racist plot to have him removed from his post, saying he felt like giving his job " back to the whites". He later apologised for the comment.

Watson, the son of anti-apartheid activist Daniel "Cheeky" Watson, would be linked to another controversy when he said in a speech on the topic of transformation in South African rugby that he had to keep himself from vomiting on the Springbok jersey.

This provoked a furious public response and the Afrikaans media, in particular, went to town on Watson's reported comments. He was called to a disciplinary hearing, but the South African Rugby Union's (Saru) judicial process floundered in the first round as Watson unleashed legal heavyweights and afterwards issued a statement deploring the governing body's "incompetence".

Watson had made himself unavailable to tour the northern hemisphere even before the squad was selected, but on a political level it was game, set and match in his favour.

He continued to make himself unavailable to play for the Springboks as long as South African rugby used the emblem, then said he would be available in future after a lengthy political fight ended in them embracing the Protea with the leaping antelope set to move to the right-hand side of the jersey. With all the dramas unfolding behind the scenes off the field, there was relief all round when the Boks finally got together to prepare for their northern hemisphere tour.

Once again it seemed De Villiers was struggling to make the grade as the Boks struggled to beat Wales and Scotland, but the resounding victory over the English clinched the argument in the coach's favour. Ruan Pienaar also emerged as a fly-half prospect of genuine quality as De Villiers used the tour to weigh up a few positional options.

On the home front South Africa surrendered the Super 14 title, with 2007 winners the Bulls not even making the semi-finals as New Zealand sides were back to full strength. The significant positive from a South African perspective was the resurgence of the Stormers as Super 14 contenders under astute coach Rassie Erasmus.

The Currie Cup, as always, provided plenty of excitement domestically, with the Sharks crowned champions after a victory over the Blue Bulls in the final. South Africa's sevens side also impressed towards the latter stages of the year, picking up tournament wins in Dubai and George under Paul Treu's coaching.

The Springboks, however, are the yardstick by which success is measured and nine victories from 13 games is a respectable return, though one would have expected a South African side in its prime to kick on from the Rugby World Cup and perform in the Tri-Nations.

That said, South Africa are favourites to win the series against the Lions in 2009. For De Villiers 2009 will probably be the year that determines whether he stays on until the next Rugby World Cup. Saru may have reviewed the 2008 season positively, but question marks remain behind De Villiers's acumen when South Africa are confronted with quality opponents.

Those questions will certainly be answered in a season where South Africa play a series against the Lions followed by a Tri-Nations campaign.

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