19 December 2012
Sitting back at the end of the year, one realises with the advantage of hindsight that 2012, while not a vintage year for South African rugby, was a pretty decent year nonetheless, highlighted by a victory in the IRB Junior World Championships on home soil.
The team that South Africans most love to see beaten is New Zealand, so the thrill was even greater when Dawie Theron’s charges defeated the four-time defending champion Baby Blacks 22-16 in the final at Newlands in Cape Town.
Adding to the drama was the fact that the Baby Boks began their campaign with a 19-23 loss to Ireland in which they frittered away numerous chances. However, they improved game by game.
A 52-3 thrashing of Italy, followed by a superb 28-16 dismantling of England, ultimately left South Africa top of the group.
They next cruised to a 35-3 victory over Argentina, who had beaten Scotland, France and Australia in the group stage. And then it was on to the final, which the Baby Boks dominated.
Adding a cherry on top, centre Jan Serfontein was named IRB Junior Player of the Year. Paul Dobson was also presented with the IRB Referee Award for Distinguished Service 2012.
The Springboks, with Jean de Villiers taking over from John Smit as captain, were a much changed team from the one that did duty in the Rugby World Cup in 2011.
They won a three-test series against England, struggled a little in the Castle Rugby Championship and then completed the year by beating Ireland, Scotland and England.
South Africa finished third in the Rugby Championship, tied with Australia on 12 points after two wins, one draw and three losses. They did, at least, like New Zealand, finish with a positive points’ differential.
The biggest disappointments were a 26-19 loss to Australia in Perth where the Boks led 13-6 at the break, and a 16-16 draw with Argentina in Mendoza. The highlight was a 33-8 thrashing of the Wallabies in the return clash in Pretoria.
Ultimately coach Heyneke Meyer gets a pass mark, although some of the Springboks’ play was unimaginative, seemingly based on trying to smash through the opposition with no thought of outsmarting or outflanking them.
There were some encouraging signs by the end of the year, though, and a lot of younger players made a convincing step up to test rugby.
One of the Springbok veterans, Bryan Habana, had the best year of all. Back in try-scoring form – he finished the year with 47 test tries to his name – the flying winger was named the South African Rugby Player of the Year.
He also won the International Rugby Players’ Association (IRPA) Try of the Year for a superb five-pointer against New Zealand in Dunedin, which included a fine chip and chase to score.
There was also an individual accolade for Sevens star Cecil Afrika. The former IRB Sevens Player of the Year was elected to join, among others, Habana, Schalk Burger, Shaun Pollock, Mike Horn, Lucas Radebe and Natalie du Toit as a Laureus South Africa ambassador. The company he joins speaks volumes about the regard in which Afrika is held.
Afrika, the top scorer and top try scorer in the previous season of the HSBC World Sevens Series, was injured during much of the 2011/12 season and his absence was reflected in the results of the Blitzbokke.
They made their only final in Port Elizabeth, but lost out narrowly to New Zealand for the title, with the Kiwis triumphing 31-26. Three times they were eliminated in the semi-finals of the primary Cup competition.
In Super Rugby, the Stormers topped the standings after the completion of the round robin matches, with 14 wins and only two defeats.
Incredibly, the team from the Western Cape was the only one that failed to earn a bonus point for scoring four tries in a match. That fact also shines a light on the team’s stubborn defence, which was the best in the competition by some distance.
The Stormers were joined in the playoffs by both the Bulls and the Sharks, while New Zealand was represented by the Chiefs and Crusaders and Australia by the defending champion Reds.
The Crusaders accounted for the Bulls in Christchurch in the qualifying finals, winning 28-13, but the Sharks upset the Reds in Brisbane, scoring an impressive 30- 17 victory.
After that win, the team from Durban had to head back to South Africa and take on the Stormers in Cape Town. In a tight contest, the Sharks booked their place in the final with a 26-19 defeat of the Stormers. The Chiefs, meanwhile, edged the Crusaders 20-17 to ensure they hosted the title decider in Hamilton.
The long distance travelling finally caught up to the Sharks in the final and they succumbed 37-6 to the Chiefs, who were first time winners of the Super Rugby title.
Nonetheless, the fact that South Africa had three teams in the six-team playoff was very encouraging. The Cheetahs finished 10th, but given their limited resources and injuries, could be satisfied with their results.
The Lions, though, continued to struggle with Super Rugby and propped up the table with only three wins in 13 matches. In 2013, they will be replaced by the Southern Kings, a regional team based in Port Elizabeth.
The Currie Cup, South Africa’s leading provincial competition, had its format changed for 2012, with it being divided into two divisions of six teams. This led to a much more evenly contested Premier Division than before, which was the aim of the move.
The Natal Sharks finished top of the table with seven wins in 10 matches. They were joined in the play-offs by the defending champion Golden Lions, with six wins, and Western Province and the Blue Bulls, with five wins and five defeats each.
In the semi-finals, the Sharks defused the challenge of the Bulls, winning 20-3 in Durban, while Western Province ended the Golden Lions’ reign with a 21-16 victory in Johannesburg.
The Springbok-laden Sharks were hot favourites to lift the title in the final in Durban. They had beaten the men from the Cape twice in the round robin, and also won twice in the Super Rugby competition against the Stormers, but Western Province didn’t buy into the predicted script and ran out 25-18 winners.
Inspired by a strong crop of young players, it was their first Currie Cup title in 11 years.
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