20 December 2011
In 2011, the Springboks’ defence of their Rugby World Cup crown came up short, but they bowed out of the event with great credit after a somewhat bizarre quarterfinal loss to Australia in which the only statistic they trailed in was the final score.
However, the tendency to focus heavily on the four-yearly event cost the Boks in the Tri-Nations tournament once again.
After employing a big mix of players, who for the most part looked underprepared, the Springboks won just one of their four Tri-Nations tests, defeating New Zealand 18-5 in a memorable encounter in Port Elizabeth.
Prior to that, an underdone team went down 14-9 to Australia in Durban, while second-string line-ups, supposedly forced because of injuries, suffered away defeats of 40-7 to New Zealand and 39-20 to Australia. Such unnecessarily big losses left a bitter taste in the mouths of Springbok supporters.
South Africa was much improved at the World Cup. Wales, who went on to finish fourth, provided a very tough challenge in the Boks’ first outing, but the men in green and gold managed a 17-16 victory.
Improving with every game, they then romped to a 49-3 victory over Fiji, thrashed Namibia 87-0, and held off a fiery Samoan side 13-5.
Those wins put the Springboks into the quarterfinals, but that’s where their tournament ended after an 11-9 defeat at the hands of Australia.
While the Springboks failed to make the final, South Africa’s Craig Joubert asserted his status as the best referee in the game when he was appointed to take charge of the World Cup final.
After the World Cup, two of the greats of South African rugby retired from the international game: John Smit, after 111 test caps, and Victor Matfield, after 110 tests, which made them number one and two all-time for South Africa.
They left, not only as senior players, but also as captain and vice-captain. Their retirement, along with the completion of coach Peter de Villiers’ contract, means that a new era of Springbok rugby is likely to begin in 2012.
The Super Rugby competition was broken up into three conferences in 2011 – Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa – with the top three sides from each conference, plus the three next best teams, qualifying for the playoffs. As it worked out, each conference provided two playoff teams, with the defending champion Bulls just missing out on a place.
The Stormers finished on top of the South African conference with 12 wins in 16 matches, while the Sharks finished second after 10 wins and one draw. The Bulls won 10 of their 16 games, while the Cheetahs scored five wins, and the Lions three wins and one draw, which was a considerable improvement on their winless 2010 season.
In the playoffs, the Crusaders were handy 36-8 victors over the Sharks in New Zealand. The following week, at Newlands in Cape Town, they ousted the Stormers 29-10. The title, however, went Australia’s way as the Reds downed the Crusaders 18-13 to claim the title.
For most of the Currie Cup season, the teams played without their Springboks, who were involved in World Cup preparations and in the World Cup itself.
The Golden Lions, who had few Springboks in their ranks, started strongly and surged into an early lead at the top of the table. They held onto it until the end, finishing on 50 points to the Sharks’ 48, the Cheetahs’ 47 and Western Province’s 41. The Blue Bulls just missed out on the semi-finals after finishing a point behind Province.
In the semi-finals, the Sharks beat the Cheetahs 20-13 and the Lions shocked a Western Province team with its Springboks 29-20. That set up a rematch of the game between the Lions and the Sharks that had been played two weeks earlier in Durban, with the defending champion Sharks triumphing 53-9. This time, however, the match would take place in Johannesburg.
In a fairy tale finish, the Lions outplayed their Springbok-stacked opponents, scoring a lopsided 42-16 victory to claim their first Currie Cup title since 1999. It was also their first at home since 1950!
Player of the Year
At the South African Rugby Awards in November, Schalk Burger was named South African Rugby Player of the Year for a second time, while the Golden Lions were named Team of the Year.
Bismarck du Plessis, widely regarded as the best hooker in the game, was named the Players’ Player of the Year.
The South African Sevens team enjoyed a good year, winning three tournaments, in Las Vegas, and then back-to-back in London and Edinburgh to end the World Series on a high.
They finished second to New Zealand in the final standings and were the only team besides the Kiwis to win more than one tournament.
Playmaker Cecil Afrika finished the HSBC Sevens World Series as the top try scorer and points’ scorer. He was deservedly named the International Rugby Board’s Player of the Year.
On the women’s front, the South African women’s team achieved a historic victory in August when they beat the USA 26-23. It marked the first time that South Africa had beaten one of the game’s top ranked teams.
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