21 December 2010
After the highs of 2009, which included a test series win over the British and Irish Lions and victory in the Tri-Nations, 2010 was a disappointing year for the Springboks – but there were highlights in other competitions to offset the disappointment.
First among these was the Super 14 competition which produced two South African finalists for only the second time in the history of Super rugby.
With preparations underway for the Fifa World Cup, it also led to important rugby matches being played, very successfully, in Soweto for the first time.
In the playoffs, the Bulls defeated the Crusaders 39-24 at the Orlando Stadium to set up a final at the same venue against the Stormers, who had impressed in a 25-6 semi-final victory over the Waratahs at Newlands. Soweto was in for a rugby-style party unlike it had ever seen before.
In a quality match, the Bulls, the top scorers in the competition, defeated the Stormers, the best defensive team in the competition, by 25 points to 17. It was the Bulls third title in four seasons.
On the back of the excellent seasons of the Bulls and Stormers, the expectations for the Sprringboks, the defending Tri-Nations champions, were high, but it wasn’t to be.
Later in the year, in the Currie Cup, the strength of the domestic competition was underlined when neither the Blue Bulls nor Western Province, pretty much the Bulls and Stormers in provincial guise, could lift the title.
The victory went to the Natal Sharks, who beat the Blue Bulls 16-12 in the semi-finals and then crushed Western Province 30-10 in the final to win the Currie Cup for the sixth time. Both Western Province and the Blue Bulls were loaded with Springboks and the Sharks’ victory showed that there was good depth in the country.
The Sharks’ triumph was built upon a hard-working tight five, an athletic loose trio, and a backline willing to let the ball do the work. They played a fast-paced game which some likened to the kind of game that made the All Blacks the most successful international team of 2010.
The Sharks’ success with that type of approach also led to questions about the Springboks, whose style of play featured a lot more kicking.
The Springboks’ successes of 2009 would have been hard to duplicate, yet in the early part of the 2010 international season it seemed that they were rolling along, carrying on the momentum of their impressive form of the previous year.
Only a week after the Super 14 final, the Boks began their season at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium on 5 June when they took on Wales with very little time to prepare. After trailing 14-16 at the break, they came back to win 34-31.
A week later, in Cape Town, Six Nations champions France were crushed 42-17 and when that big victory was followed by 29-13 and 55-11 wins over Italy it looked as if South Africa was on course for another strong Tri-Nations campaign. Those sentiments were soon proved wrong.
When South Africa was beaten in successive weeks by New Zealand – 20-32 in Auckland and 17-31 in Wellington – it was clear that the Springboks were not as sharp as had been thought.
When those losses were followed by a big 13-30 loss to Australia in Brisbane, the Boks’ hopes of retaining their Tri-Nations title were about done.
Back on home soil, the losses continued, and after a 22-29 defeat against New Zealand at the FNB Stadium in Soweto, in front of a massive crowd of 94 000, the Springboks’ Tri-Nations title hopes were well and truly over.
On a positive note, in the same game, John Smit became only the second South African to play 100 tests, after Percy Montgomery.
South Africa managed a 44-31 win over Australia in their next game at Loftus Versfeld, in which Victor Matfield became the third Springbok to play in 100 tests and the first to celebrate the milestone with a victory. By the end of 2010, he had played in a South Africa record 105 tests.
After the win in Pretoria, the Springboks suffered a narrow 39-41 loss in their final Tri-Nations outing which left South Africa bottom of the Tri-Nations standings.
Grand Slam tour
The Springboks had an opportunity to regain some pride at the end of the year as they undertook a Grand Slam tour and it began with an impressive 23-21 victory over Ireland in a match that marked the reopening of the famous Lansdowne Road.
A week later, in Cardiff, the Boks staged a stunning second half comeback to defeat Wales. They trailed 9-17 at the break, but played some great rugby after halftime to take the lead and eventually went on to a 29-25 win.
Scotland was regarded as the weakest of the four home unions, so it was thought by many that South Africa’s game at Murrayfield would result in a routine victory. Some changes were made to the starting fifteen that reflected this kind of thinking. But the Boks were in for a rude shock.
Early on they took the lead, but then the Scots started getting into the game midway through the first half and the Springboks’ play deteriorated, filled with mistakes and poor decision-making.
Whereas South Africa had been able to lift their game at crucial stages in the wins over Ireland and Wales, there was no get-of-out-of-jail card to play this time around and they suffered a shock 17-21 loss to Scots. The Grand Slam dream was over and it had been ended by the so-called weakest team on the slate. It was a huge disappointment, especially because of the shockingly poor display by the Boks.
England, conquerors of Australia and a team that had given the All Blacks a stiff test, was next on the schedule and there were big concerns that another loss could be on the cards. However, it was a totally different looking Springbok team that faced England and they produced a mighty 80-minute performance to win at Twickenham.
They dominated the highly regarded English pack in the lineouts and loose, and even enjoyed a slight advantage in the set scrums. Using this forward-focused approach, the Boks secured a hard-fought but thoroughly deserved 21-11 victory.
As far as extenuating circumstances go for a disappointing season, the Springboks, although some might be loath to use it as an excuse, did suffer some serious injuries that robbed them of some world class and key players.
They included the man most regard as the best scrumhalf in the world Fourie du Preez, along with Heinrich Brussouw, a man capable of challenging All Black captain Richie McCaw at the breakdown.
Captain John Smit also missed time, although with Bismarck du Plessis in sensational form, Smit might have a hard time keeping his Sharks’ team-mate out of the number two jersey. Centre star Jaque Fourie was also sidelined, as was fellow 2007 World Cup winner JP Pietersen.
In 2011 the Springboks will defend the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. They go into the season with a lot of questions to answer and many solutions yet to be found.
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