South African rugby in 2002

The enduring memory of the 2002 season will be one of incredulity, confusion, anger and disbelief after the Springboks were torn apart in three successive Tests on their end of year European tour, losing by record margins to France, Scotland and England. It was a disheartening showing after performances earlier in the year had hinted at a revival of Bok fortunes.

Not everything was bad, though. The Bankfin Currie Cup was one of the more exciting competitions of recent times and some exciting, young and talented players emerged. This is my assessment of the 2002 season:

Player of the Year: Joe van Niekerk

In what became a very forgettable year for the Springboks, Joe van Niekerk was the one player that was consistent in playing at a high level with skill and passion. He stood out all the more because of this during the Boks’ dismal end of year tour of Europe. Van Niekerk’s try against Australia at Ellis Park in a memorable 33-31 victory was one of the best five-pointers of the year.

Special mention: Kennedy Tsimba

Although he wasn’t able to play international rugby, the Cheetahs’ Zimbabwean flyhalf Kennedy Tsimba added a spark to the domestic season with assured and exciting displays. His decision-making, kicking and obvious joy and passion for the game helped inspire a fine run for the young Free State team. Tsimba’s sparkling personality shone through in his play and he provided fans of rugby with delightful highlights to remember. He finished the season as both the highest points and try scorer in South African rugby.

Most overlooked player: Warren Britz

One of the Sharks’ best players in the Super 12, Warren Britz earned his first Springbok cap against Wales in Bloemfontein in early June, but was left out of the squad in the next Test. Britz didn’t allow this disappointment to affect his performances and he enjoyed an excellent Bankfin Currie Cup season, earning himself a nomination as player of the year in the competition. At the conclusion of the Currie Cup, though, Britz found himself out in the cold when the squad to tour Europe was announced. Given that it was coach Rudolf Straeuli’s contention that players would be selected on form and health it was quite a shock that Britz didn’t earn a call up; in the light of the record losses then incurred on the tour it became maybe an even bigger injustice to the hard-working Sharks’ flanker.

Best Test performance of the year: SA 33 Australia 31, Ellis Park

In a topsy-turvy contest the Springboks scored the first four tries of the match before conceding three and the lead to Australia. With time expired on the clock and the Wallabies enjoying a man advantage after centre Marius Joubert was given his marching orders, the Boks launched a final furious counter-attack that was finished off by Werner Greeff after he hit the Australian defences at full speed on a perfect angle. Despairing tacklers failed to hold on to Greeff who powered through for a try. That wasn’t the end of the tension, however, as Greeff needed to goal his own try to win the game for the Boks. He was successful and South Africa recorded its most memorable victory of 2002. It was this match that gave Springbok fans so much hope for better things to come before the disastrous end of year tour to Europe.

Worst Test performance of the year: SA 3 England 53

Take your pick really. I have opted for the England humiliation because of the size of the defeat, but it could also have been the 30-10 loss to France or the 21-6 setback against Scotland. In all three of these Tests the Springboks were poor, poor, poor and for supporters (such as myself) it was torturous to watch a team that seemed to have inexplicably lost its way completely only three months after an exhilarating win over Australia at Ellis Park. The entire European tour was a nightmare and the Boks scored a sum total of one try in three Tests. They totalled 19 points and conceded 104, hardly worthy of a team with a ranking in the top five of world rugby.

Newcomer of the year: Derick Hougaard

No contest here: Derick Hougaard played a pivotal role in leading the Blue Bulls to the Bankfin Currie Cup title. It all started when he turned out against defending champions Western Province in Pretoria and in a superb display of tactical and goal kicking he weighed-in with 30 points in the Bulls’ 35-29 win, with nine penalties and a coolly taken dropped goal. The following week he knocked over a penalty with time expired (and scored 14 points) to guide the Bulls to a 29-28 victory over Griquas. The following weekend he scored 13 in a 45-0 shellacking of the Falcons. That win sealed a tough semi-final away to the Sharks. Playing in rainy, wet conditions Hougaard controlled the game with his boot and netted 17 points in the Bulls shock 22-20 win over the favoured Sharks. That left only one more game to play: the Currie Cup final. Once more Hougaard dictated matters and put the points on the board with his boot. His haul of 26 points was a new record for the Currie Cup final as the Bulls surged to a 31-7 success. It came as little surprise when Hougaard was voted the Blue Bulls’ Player of the Year. Without the 19-year old flyhalf it is doubtful that the Currie Cup would today be housed in Pretoria.

Coach of the year: Heyneke Meyer

Heyneke Meyer’s Bulls Super 12 outfit, made up mostly of players from the Blue Bulls endured a horrible season, losing every single one of their 12 matches whilst conceding 500 points, an average of 42 points a game. Somehow he managed to instil confidence in his players at the Blue Bulls, come up with a game plan to suit their strengths and then outplay the competition to earn the team an unexpected Bankfin Currie Cup title. Earlier their had been talk of Meyer being fired, of former Northern Transvaal players staging a campaign to have him fired, but in the end he had the last laugh as his side surged to a 31-7 victory over the Lions in Johannesburg to lift South African’s rugby’s premier domestic title.

Provincial upset of the year: Blue Bulls 48 Eastern Province 50

Heading into their match against eventual Bankfin Currie Cup champions, The Blue Bulls, away at Loftus Versfeld, the Mighty Elephants had been anything but mighty, losing all five games that they had played up till then. The in-form Bulls looked as if they would run away to another comfortable win over the struggling Elephants when they went into halftime with a healthy 27-12 lead. However, after the break, they conceded 38 points and were ultimately outscored eight tries to six. Making this result all the more remarkable is that Bulls finished the season as the team with the best defensive record in the Currie Cup. In fact, during the round-robin part of the competition, they conceded just 13 tries in seven matches! On a notable positive note for the Currie Cup champs, Derick Hougaard turned out at flyhalf and with six conversions a penalty and a dropped goal contributed 18 points.

Special mention: Lions 50 Western Province 13

Western Province, the defending Bankfin Currie Cup champions, were playing for their survival in the competition, away to the Lions at Ellis Park. Province got onto the scoreboard first and opened up a 10-nil lead, but the Lions clawed their way back into the contest and by halftime had levelled matters at 10-10. In the second half it was all one-way traffic as the home team ran in 40 points, while the champions managed only three in reply. It was a brilliant showing from the Lions and a shocking end to Province’s season, keeping them out of the semi-finals. The magnitude of the margin of victory earns this showdown special mention as upset of the year.

Provincial Game of the Year: Pumas 35 Lions 36

The Blue Bulls’ 35-26 victory over Western Province at Loftus Versfeld and the Cheetahs 35-29 win over the Blue Bulls at Vodacom Park came close to cracking the nod in this category, but, given the impact of the victory, the Lions 36-35 squeaker over the Pumas in Witbank is the choice here. Had Louis Koen not made a kick from the halfway line (that barely made it over) with time up the Lions could have kissed their Currie Cup hopes goodbye. Thanks to that kick, however, they were able to stay in the running and eventually went on to gain home ground advantage for the final. Koen’s kick was worth some millions to the Golden Lions Rugby Union, but unfortunately for his team they came up well short in the final against the Blue Bulls when they were manhandled 31-7.

Feel-good moment of the year

The victory by the ‘Baby Boks’ in the IRB under-21 World Cup made fans feel good about the future of rugby in South Africa. On the way to the title the team defeated both New Zealand and Australia, displaying passion and a never-say-die attitude. Unfortunately, later in the year, captain Clyde Rathbone was signed away from South African rugby by the ACT Brumbies…

FIRST CLASS LEADERS 2002

Points’ scorers:

 

  • Kennedy Tsimba (Free State Cheetahs) 406
  • Andre Pretorius (Lions) 314
  • Brett Hennessy (Mighty Elephants) 210
  • Slang Roux (Griffons) 190
  • Rynard van As (Eagles) 185
  • Derick Hougaard (Blue Bulls) 182Try scorers:
  • Kennedy Tsimba (Free State Cheetahs) 19
  • Stefan Terblanche (Natal Sharks) 17
  • Jaque Fourie (Lions) 15
  • Etienne Botha (Falcons) 13
  • Darryl Coeries (Boland Cavaliers) 13
  • John Daniels (Lions) 13
  • Manie du Toit (Eagles) 13