Much like 2002, 2003 will go down in the history books as a poor year for South African rugby. The Springboks failed to fire during the course of the season, and only in a 60-10 victory over Samoa during the World Cup did they look like a world-class outfit.
SA rugby was hit by accusations of racism after an incident involving Quinton Davids and Geo Cronje at a World Cup camp. After that neither player was selected to go Down Under for rugby biggest tournament.
Revelations about a military-style camp, named ‘Kamp Staaldraad’, which took place just before the World Cup, shocked both the South African public and the rugby world.
Coach Rudolf Straeuli, who had always maintained he should be judged on the Springboks’ performance at the World Cup, came under heavy fire, especially when sensational photos of naked players carrying out tasks came to light.
Straeuli subsequently resigned and on the same day SA Rugby boss Rian Oberholzer stepped down. South African Rugby Football Union (Sarfu) president Silas Nkanunu followed soon afterwards, also resigning. Brian van Rooyen then took over as Sarfu president in a major shake-up for the embattled sport.
Player of the year: Juan Smith
The one area of South African rugby that did stand out in an otherwise poor year was in the loose forward department. And Juan Smith stepped up and made his mark in the Springbok number-eight jumper.
A tall man, he showed excellent speed off the mark, a motor that ran at 100 percent throughout every contest, and the heart of a lion. Together with Joe van Niekerk and Corne Krige, Smith formed a formidable loose trio, capable of upstaging many a back row combination in world rugby today.
Providing Van Niekerk avoids the injuries that have plagued hm, he and Smith should be two of South Africa’s stars for many years to come.
Special mention: Ashwin Willemse
Ashwin Willemse made his mark in 2003. A member of the South African under-21 World Cup winning team of 2002, he first made the step up to Super 12 level during the 2003 season, and then to international level where he proved to be one of the Springboks’ more consistent and exciting players.
In some of the Boks’ poorer performances he stood out like a lighthouse in the mist. Willemse was well rewarded for his excellent performances when he became the first player in history to scoop the top three awards at the SA Rugby Player of the Year awards. Willemse won the Player of the Year, Promising Player of the Year, and Players’ Player of the Year awards. Maybe the reason I didn’t pick him ahead of Smith is because in some of the Boks’ poorer showings Willemse was effectively shut out of the action.
Most overlooked player: Brent Russell
Brent Russell is the kind of player that can turn a match on its head in the blink of an eye. He has an unbelievable ability to spot the gap and incredibly fast feet that enable him to create spaces where none should exist. He is, in a word, a game-breaker.
Russell was the catalyst in South Africa’s 26-22 win over Australia in July, and was rightly showered with praise. However, next time out against New Zealand, he had a below-par outing and was dropped. He never got the chance to play for the Boks again.
Although he was injured at a stage before the World Cup squad was chosen, Russell could still have played Down Under – especially when the Boks were crying out for a playmaker, someone who could make a difference.
It seems the constant obsession with size is the problem that Russell faces. But surely his fantastic skills outweigh any considerations that he is too small to make it at the top level?
Best Test performance: SA vs Samoa (Brisbane)
South Africa’s most complete performance of the year came in the World Cup against Samoa in a must-win match. The Samoans had pushed eventual winners England all the way in their previous match and, based on that performance, it was thought that they could upset the Springboks.
But the Boks never allowed the Samoans into the showdown and ran out comfortable 60-10 winners. South Africa dominated all facets of play from the very first whistle and with the scrum calling the tune up front the backs were able to flourish. By the end of the game the Boks had outscored the Samoans eight tries to one and were full value for their win.
Worst Test performance: SA vs New Zealand (Pretoria)
South Africa’s worst performance of the year came at Loftus Versfeld where they lost 52-16 to New Zealand. Springbok hopes were high after their win over Australia the week before, but the All Blacks tore the Boks apart with fine running rugby.
If Carlos Spencer had had his kicking boots on the New Zealand score would have been closer to 70 points. In the end they ran in seven tries to one and it was the most emphatic victory the All Blacks have ever scored over South Africa.
Newcomer of the year: Kabamba Floors
South Western Districts Eagles flanker Kabamba Floors quickly made a name for himself in 2003 with his wholehearted game. He demonstrated a real nose for the ball and exceptional pace for a loose forward.
Considered to be undersized, Floors didn’t let that get him down at all. He caught the eye of Springbok Sevens coach Chester Williams and when he was given the opportunity in the IRB Sevens Series on his home ground in George he delivered a dynamic performance, winning the player of the tournament award. With his dyed-blond hair he’s hard to miss, and his performances are just as eye-catching.
Coach of the year: Heyneke Meyer
Blue Bulls coach Heyneke Meyer, as he was in 2002, is my pick as coach of the year.
Under Meyer the Blue Bulls continued to build on their Currie Cup victory of last year and they became stronger and stronger as the season progressed.
The Blue Bulls were forced to take on the experienced Natal Sharks in the Currie Cup final without a single member of their first-choice tight five – all on World Cup duty – but that didn’t hold them back. They overpowered the Sharks in a one-sided match, winning 40-19.
Rugby fans had begun to forget the Blue Bull dynasty that once ruled South African rugby, but with Meyer at the helm in Pretoria those memories have become nightmares to the supporters of other teams – and happy recollections of days gone by for Blue Bulls fans.
Provincial upset of the year: Blue Bulls vs Griquas (Pretoria)
The upset of the year took place at Loftus Versfeld where struggling Griquas managed to upset the Blue Bulls.
The men from Kimberley kept the defending Currie Cup champions on the back foot throughout the match, dominating the much-vaunted Blue Bulls pack on their way to a 19-15 win. in which Griquas outscored the home team three tries to two.
Heading into the game, Griquas were winless in four outings and had not challenged for victory in any game.
Special mention: Western Province vs Blue Bulls (Cape Town)
The Blue Bulls opened their Currie Cup season with a 64-29 thrashing of Western Province.
The second time the teams met Heyneke Meyer’s charges had lost only one game, away to the Sharks, and had five wins under their belt. Province, who had been struggling throughout the season however, tore the Bulls to shreds with a display of great running rugby in the finest traditions of the men in blue and white stripes.
Province were too fast and too slick for the Blue Bulls and there could not have been a more complete turnaround from the opening match of the season. Province led 42-7 at the break and went on to a comfortable 63-26 victory that included nine tries.
Provincial game of the Year: Cheetahs vs Sharks (Bloemfontein)
Heading into their final round-robin match, the Natal Sharks needed to beat Free State in Bloemfontein – never an easy task – and also score at least four tries to pick up a bonus point and advance to the Currie Cup final.
The Sharks built up a 15-10 lead at halftime, but the Cheetahs fought back strongly in the second half to take the lead. Meanwhile, Sharks flyhalf Butch James squandered three kicks at goal.
James’s opposite number Kennedy Tsimba had put his team ahead with two fantastic tries as the Free Staters first led 22-15 and then 25-20 with only 11 minutes to play.
Charl van Rensburg the pulled the Sharks level with his second try of match that also earned the visitors a bonus point, but at 25-all it wouldn’t be enough to take them into the final.
In the final movement of the game the Natalians surged deep into Free State territory and when the Cheetahs were trapped offside, James was given an opportunity to make amends for his earlier misses. He slotted the penalty to give the Sharks a 28-25 win and a spot in the final.
Feel-good moment of the year: SA under-19 win World Cup
Following in the footsteps of the under-21 World Cup winners of 2002, the South African under-19 team captured the World Cup in their age group with a spirited and deserved 22-18 victory over arch-rivals New Zealand.
Ably led by scrumhalf Paul Delport, the young South Africans fought fire with fire but found themselves 15-10 down at the break. However, South Africa kept the pressure up and the Kiwis started to wilt under the never-say-die commitment of the green and gold.
A penalty by the outstanding Earl Rose pulled South Africa to within two points of the defending champions and another successful kick put SA in the lead 16-15. New Zealand hit back immediately, though, and went 18-16 in front with another penalty.
But South Africa took they game to the Kiwis and earned another penalty that Rose slotted to put his team back in front. He missed a tough kick at goal shortly afterwards, but flyhalf Isma-Eel Dollie sealed a great win with a well-taken dropped goal as South Africa became World Cup winners with a 22-18 victory.
Top domestic points scorers in 2003
- Kennedy Tsimba (Cheetahs) 230
- Chris Rossouw (Western Province) 199
- Casper Steyn (Pumas) 193
- Butch James (Sharks) 174
- Nel Fourie (Lions) 139
- Louis Strydom (Blue Bulls) 133
- Derick Hougaard (Blue Bulls) 83
- John Daniels (Lions) 65
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