South African rugby in 2004

10 January 2005

South African rugby in 2003 and South African rugby in 2004 belonged not one year apart – there were light years between them. Thankfully for the game’s legions of fans, the shift in fortunes was in the right direction.

The aftermath of the World Cup failure in 2003 and questions of racism in the sport led to a changing of the guard that runs the game, and a change of Springbok coach that most would surely agree has proved to be a great success.

Brian van Rooyen took over from Rian Oberholzer as CEO of Sarfu. While his autocratic style and occasional about-faces on issues have not endeared him to all, it cannot be denied that the game is in a healthier state under Van Rooyen than it was before he took over at the top.

The decision to appoint Jake White to coach the Springboks proved to be a masterstroke. From an atmosphere of distrust – an “us against them” laager mentality – and poor results on the field, the Boks have evolved into a united team that has produced the kind of results that the demanding South African rugby fan, justifiably or unjustifiably, demands.

2004 brought with it South Africa’s second Tri-Nations title in the tightest-fought competition to date as each team won twice at home and lost twice away from home.

The Springboks, though, came close away from home and, very encouragingly, found an attacking edge that saw them top the try-scoring charts and with that earn enough bonus points to sneak the win ahead of Australia, with New Zealand in third place.

It was, indeed, a remarkable turnaround from the directionless, angry rugby of 2003.

Let’s take a closer look at the stars of 2004.

Player of the Year: Schalk Burger
This choice is an easy one. It is hard to argue with the four major awards the all-action blond-haired flanker won. Burger was named South African Player of the Year, the International Rugby Players’ Association’s (IRPA) Player of the Year and the IRPA Best Newcomer, as well as – the cherry on the top – the IRB International Rugby Player of the Year.

So, why did he win all those awards? Probably at the top of the list of reasons would be Burger’s performances in the Tri-Nations when, up against some of the finest loose forwards in the game, he dominated the competition with powerful, industrious and effective performances that many would have thought impossible for such a big man (1.93 metres tall and 106 kilograms).

The man dubbed “the Incredible Schalk” added a new dimension to the play of loose-forwards just when it seemed the standard couldn’t really be improved on.

After all, in the Tri-Nations alone, there were already recognised world-class players such as George Smith, Phil Waugh, Richie McCaw and Marty Holah. Yet Burger, at age 21, turned the Tri-Nations on its head.

He also enjoyed a very good Super 12 competition, but his play suffered later in the year when the Springboks undertook yet another end-of-season tour – this time of the United Kingdom and Argentina – that drained the last bit of energy left in the tired bodies of players who had begun their competitive fixtures way back at the end of February.

One must question, as has been done many times before, the wisdom of such tours.

Special mention: Victor Matfield
Victor Matfield and Jake White got off to a shaky start – no doubt some of the problems were due to a contractual dispute the Blue Bulls’ lock had with SA Rugby – but White also believed Matfield was capable of better performances than he had delivered so far in his career.

On that point it would appear that the Bok coach was right, because Matfield lifted his game to new heights in 2004.

He is a remarkably gifted athlete for such a big man, and if there was one guarantee in the Springboks’ matches it was that Matfield would win his lineout ball, while giving the other teams fits when they had the put-in to the lineout. As the year wore on his command of the lineouts became more imperious.

Where Matfield lifted his game considerably – and it helped that he was partnered by his very physical Blue Bulls teammate Bakkies Botha when playing for the Boks – was in the tight phases. In the past he had been accused of spending too much time away from the rucks and mauls, but in 2004, it seemed, Matfield found a good balance.

He produced a very skilled game in all departments, all over the field, and his Tri-Nations winning try against Australia at the Absa Stadium in Durban provided possibly the biggest highlight of the year for South African fans.

Most overlooked player: Ettienne Botha
The player who, in my book, deserves special mention wasn’t considered good enough to make the Springboks squad in either the Tri-Nations or the end-of-season tour.

Blue Bulls’ centre Ettiene Botha set the domestic scene on fire with a string of electrifying performances that helped catapult the Pretoria-based team to a successful defence of their Currie Cup title.

Give Springbok coach Jake White his due, he stuck by the players that served him well in the Tri-Nations when he selected the team to tour at the end of the year, but after Botha’s scintillating season, surely he could have won a place as one of the five centres in the team.

The thing is, Botha’s sustained excellence was on display week after week against the very players that White selected ahead of him. It didn’t drop off when he was confronted by a “big gun”, and he regularly made game-changing breaks or scored game-changing tries.

Botha’s 18 tries – one short of Carel du Plessis’ record of 19 – were something to behold, and it was somewhat disturbing that he wasn’t considered good enough to make the Springbok squad yet he was good enough to be named Currie Cup Player of the Year.

There is something about that decision that doesn’t sit right. Either Botha didn’t deserve the award, or he deserved to be awarded his national colours; in my opinion, it’s clear he deserved the award. Enough said.

Best Test performance: SA vs New Zealand (Ellis Park, Johannesburg)
The Springboks’ best performance of the year came in front of the side’s talisman, Nelson Mandela, in front of a full house of expectant fans at Ellis Park. Their 40-26 victory over the All Blacks was their first over the Kiwis since 2000, and it also put the Boks in position to win the Tri-Nations title, which they went on to do with a good win over Australia in Durban the following week.

It wasn’t just the fact that South Africa won that resonated with the fans, but the manner in which they achieved the victory. It is not every day that the All Blacks are beaten, and it is certainly a rare feat to score five tries against the New Zealand national team. Add to that the fact that Percy Montgomery had an off-day with the boot, and the Boks could have reached 50 points.

Yet it wasn’t a runaway victory. Six minutes in, John Smit and co found themselves 10-nil behind after the visitors had scored a penalty and a brilliant try by Mil Muliaina, which Andrew Mehrtens converted.

Marius Joubert, though, pulled the Springboks back into the contest with the first of his three tries, which equaled the record against the All Blacks, previously set by Ray Mordt back in 1981 in the infamous flour-bomb Test.

South Africa managed to open up a six-point gap at 19-13 after further tries from Breyton Paulse and another from Joubert, but the Kiwis clawed their way back through a penalty by Andrew Mehrtens, who made it 19-16.

Montgomery put South Africa 22-16 in front with a penalty, but the New Zealanders retook the lead when Joe Rokocoko sliced through SA’s defences for a try that Mehrtens goaled, to make it 23-22 New Zealand.

Back came the Boks, with Montgomery nailing a penalty to give SA a 25-23 lead. Mehrtens made it a one-point game with another penalty that put the All Blacks 26-25 ahead, but then came a grandstand finish from South Africa.

First, Joubert punched a huge hole in the Kiwi defences and then popped up a pass for Jean de Villiers to put South Africa back in front at 30-26. Importantly, it was the Springboks’ fourth try of the match, which secured for them a bonus point; at the conclusion of the competition it would be bonus points that secured the title for South Africa.

Then Montgomery extended the South African lead to seven points with a long-range kick and then, with only four minutes left, Jacques Cronje, on as a substitute for Joe van Niekerk, set up Joubert for his third try, which he dotted down under the uprights.

Montgomery’s conversion made it 40-26 to the Boks, and a whole nation once again believed that the Springboks could be world beaters.

The victory over the All Blacks also meant South Africa became the first holders of the new Freedom Cup, which was introduced to celebrate 10 years of democracy in the rainbow nation.

Worst Test performance: SA vs England (Twickenham)
This was one of those games; it had barely started and one could see that England would win for the sixth successive time over South Africa.

The Springboks could do little right, making rhythm-breaking error after error. And up front the big Bok pack was strangely incapable of dealing with the driving mauls of the English. Even in the tight phases, the Boks were on the back foot. Clearly, from the start of the game, this was a team that was out of sorts.

England were without the commanding figure of Jonny Wilkinson at flyhalf, but his replacement, Charlie Hodgson, blossomed behind a dominant pack to contribute 27 points in a convincing 32-16 England victory.

For the third match in succession on the end-of-season tour, South Africa looked tired but, worse than that, it appeared they had not yet adjusted to the conditions, and facing the world champions that sealed their fate.

On a positive note, Bryan Habana came on late in the game and scored a try with his first touch of the ball. In the next game against Scotland, the flying newcomer would confirm his massive promise with a two-try effort.

That ray of light at the end of the contest, though, couldn’t hide the fact that it was by far South Africa’s worst test performance of 2004.

Newcomer of the year: Bryan Habana
Bryan Habana began the season starring for the South African under-21 team at the World Cup. Although they were well beaten 49-27 by eventual winners New Zealand in pool play – the Kiwis would go on to crush Ireland 49-17 in the final – Habana showed his pace with a hat-trick of tries as NZ outscored SA seven tries to five.

Habana didn’t play in the Super 12, but later in the season, when he cracked the nod for the Lions’ Currie Cup team, he excelled, crossing the tryline 10 times and showing a devastating burst of speed that left defenders floundering in his wake.

The champions, the Blue Bulls, liked what they saw of him in the Currie Cup and moved to sign him for the 2005 season, where the potential of his pairing with Ettienne Botha is huge.

Springbok coach Jake White recognised something special in Habana and pulled him into his Tri-Nations squad, where the versatile backline speedster had a chance to reap the benefits of the Springbok experience.

He wasn’t a first choice option on the Boks’ end-of-season tour, but when he came on as a substitute against England he scored with his first touch of the ball. Against Scotland the following week he touched down twice.

Not only that, Habana impressed with his very physical defence despite his being somewhat undersized by today’s standards of centres and wings.

After a draining tour, far too late in an extended season in which many stalwarts struggled to find form, it was clear that the find of the tour was Bryan Habana. And when one considers that he started the season playing for SA under-21, and missed out on Super 12 action, it was definitely a case of a meteoric rise for him.

Coach of the year: Jake White
Heyneke Meyer deserves mention for leading his Blue Bulls to a convincing defence of their Currie Cup title, but Jake White takes this honour because he brought back the world’s belief in Springbok rugby. It is hard to argue with his award as IRB International Coach of the Year. It was an one he richly deserved.

The quick turnaround of people’s perception of the Boks – from the bad boys of world rugby to the exciting new talent – is down to White’s vision in identifying the right players, and his ability to communicate what he wants to those players. Some recent Springbok coaches failed miserably in that vital aspect of their job.

By the end of the year, White had led the Springboks to nine wins and four defeats. The successes included victories over New Zealand for the first time since 2000, over Australia, Ireland (twice), the tough Pacific Islanders, Wales (twice), Argentina and Scotland.

All the losses were away from home, to New Zealand by two points, to Australia by four points, to Ireland by five points, and in the sole really disappointing game of 2004, by 16 points to England.

Obviously away form is something the Boks need to work at, but the signs are good that the team is moving in the right direction. Thanks, Jake.

Provincial upset of the year: Griquas vs Sharks (Kimberley)
Griquas are usually tough customers in Kimberley, but heading into their clash with the Sharks they had been thrashed 79-31 at home by Western Province and 63-6 by the same team in Cape Town. They had lost six of eight matches. The Sharks, meanwhile, had downed WP 29-18 in Durban.

When the final whistle blew on the Griquas versus Sharks encounter, however, it was Griquas who came away with four points and a 33-24 win. And they were full value for their victory.

Just how Griquas managed to pick themselves up and beat the most consistent team in the Currie Cup over the past decade is difficult to understand, but they clearly didn’t take a step back for the visitors.

Both teams managed three tries apiece, but with the Griquas’ pack forcing the Sharks onto the back foot, the Natalians made plenty of errors for which they were made to pay by the accurate boot of Braam van Straaten.

Even so, the home side’s win came after they fell 10-0 behind, which goes to show how much they eventually dominated the contest.

Provincial game of the Year: Blue Bulls vs Western Province (Pretoria)
The two teams met in the final round of the round robin competition in Pretoria and Western Province needed a positive result to clinch second spot on the log. It proved to be an epic encounter, with both teams scoring five tries in a 36-all draw as Province achieved their aim.

Played in front of a packed stadium of 52 000, the match had it all, including Ettienne Botha scoring twice to show the Springbok selectors – to no avail – that he belonged in the green and gold.

Early on the Blue Bulls led 14-0 thanks to those two Botha tries, but when Bulls’ hooker Danie Coetzee was sent to the sin bin for 10 minutes the visitors made the champions pay in a big way.

They ran in four tries while he was off, all just before half time, to take a good-looking 26-14 lead into the break. First it was Breyton Paulse going over, followed by De Wet Barry, Jean de Villiers, and Marius Joubert.

The Bulls, however, who before the game had been accused of fielding a second-string line-up because they had rested some of their stars (they would qualify top of the table regardless of the outcome), had no plans to lie down and surrender.

They came out firing on all cylinders in the second half, taking the fight to Western Province in the forwards. Pedrie Wannenberg and Warren Brosnihan pulled the Bulls back into the contest with tries for the Blue Bulls, and when Morne Steyn landed a penalty with four minutes left the scores were level at 29-all.

Western Province, desperate for the points they needed for a home semi-final, hit back with a great try that was rounded off by De Villiers near the uprights. The successful conversion from Gaffie du Toit put WP 36-29 ahead, but the Blue Bulls were not done.

They attacked mightily, forcing Province to concede penalty after penalty, which resulted in two yellow cards, for prop Pat Barnard and lock Johan van Zyl.

The home team then made them pay, carrying the ball through 14 phases, prodding and prying left and right until Western Province finally ran out of defenders and Steyn flew over for the try. His conversion leveled the scores at 36-all and brought down the curtain on a great contest.

Feel-good moment of the year: SA wins the Tri-Nations
After the troubles of 2003 – Kamp Staaldraad and the World Cup wipeout – South Africa’s return to rugby respectability was confirmed when the Springboks clinched the Tri-Nations title in Durban in front of a deliriously happy crowd.

I was lucky enough to be in the crowd that day. The energy of the expectations and hopes was electric, and when those dreams were realised with a 23-19 win over Australia the feel-good vibe that erupted was a joy to experience.

The Tri-Nations title proved that the talent in South Africa that everyone knows exists can be moulded into a winning Springbok team, something that had become a little unclear in recent years.

Optimism is now the key word for South African rugby fans as they cast their eyes to 2005.

2004 Currie Cup Log

 

  • 1. Blue Bulls 56
  • 2. Western Province 46
  • 3. Cheetahs 45
  • 4. Lions 45
  • 5. Sharks 33
  • 6. Griquas 28
  • 7. Pumas 23
  • 8. Eagles 13

 

Currie Cup Top Scorers

 

  • Willem de Waal (Cheetahs) 192
  • Derick Hougaard (Blue Bulls) 188
  • Braam van Straaten (Griquas) 143
  • Nel Fourie (Lions) 138
  • Conrad Barnard (Sharks) 137
  • Gaffie du Toit (Western Province) 97

 

Currie Cup Top Try Scorers

 

  • Ettienne Botha (Blue Bulls) 18
  • Egon Seconds (Western Province) 13
  • Giscard Pieters (Pumas) 12
  • Bryan Habana (Lions) 10
  • Breyton Paulse (Western Province) 10
  • John Daniels (Lions) 9
  • Frikkie Welsh (Blue Bulls) 9
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