Season to be JOLLY

2007-12-22 00:00

With 2007 drawing to a close, South African rugby can look back to what was arguably its most successful year ever — and that statement goes well beyond the clinching of the World Cup on October 20.

The winning of the World Cup, of course, was the single biggest achievement of a year that can hardly any longer be divided into seasons. After all, the first Super 14 matches were played on February 2, and the Springboks closed the year with a disappointing match against the (hardly) British Barbarians on December 1 — and already the Super 14 players are going at it full tilt during their training sessions for next year’s competition that starts on February 15.

Let’s look at the year’s achievements: the Springboks won the World Cup, were voted the IRB’s Team of the Year, won 14 Tests, the most in South Africa’s rugby history, and ended the year as the number one ranked team — above the All Blacks.

Included in the Springboks’ 14 victories were four wins over England — also the most in a year — and one against Australia.

Springbok wing Bryan Habana was voted IRB Player of the Year, and national coach Jake White was IRB Coach of the Year. The Sevens side started off well by winning the first leg of the IRB Sevens World Series in Dubai, but then squandered a golden opportunity to win at home with a handling error costing the title in George.

Two strange calls by the referee in the next two tournaments cost the Sevens Springboks, and they will in future view England referee Wayne Barnes very much in the same way as the All Blacks, who were effectively blown out of the World Cup in France by the young referee.

Perhaps they didn’t bring back the trophies, but the national Under-19s and Under-21s also did South Africa proud.

The Under-19 side lost in the IRB World Under-19 Championship final to New Zealand (7-31), while the Under-21 side lost their title when home team France won 24-13 in a bruising encounter.

No internationals were played by the national women’s side, and there is great concern about the fact that the game among women seems to have stagnated. In fact, in the northern unions player numbers have decreased dramatically and are cause for concern and also for planning.

The women’s Sevens side did well to clinch the African title when they beat Uganda.

The winning of the World Cup (again) brought about a marked unification of people and ideologies in South Africa in a season where politicians put SA Rugby, the Springboks and management under a fair amount of pressure because of their perceived notion of development that was taking place at too slow a pace.

The hooters and accompanying noise of elation after the win over England went on until the early hours of the morning.

There was also the Super 14 final that resembled a fairytale with the ending where Bryan Habana (who else?) rounded off a movement of umpteen minutes after the hooter had gone to clinch the title for the Bulls.

But hats off to the Sharks. They may have lost that final against the Bulls, but helped to sound a warning to the world that there is, after all, depth and talent in South Africa. It is something the Antipodeans are still sceptical about, despite the world’s two most prestigious and sought-after rugby trophies in South African cupboards.

Just how good was the winning of those two trophies? Are the Springboks really the best team in the world? Did the decision of New Zealand to withdraw their players from the Super 14 during the early stages take some gloss off the South African performances?

Let’s take a look at the World Cup — and let it be said that South Africa did, indeed, have an easier route than what was foreseen by virtually every knowledgeable rugby fan in the world.

The fact remains, they won when it was needed, and France and New Zealand, the other two favourites, didn’t.

They kept their heads when all around them were losing theirs, as poet Rudyard Kipling said, and that, plus many other factors, brought them their success.

That the ultimate victory in the final came against a side close to their lowest ebb in 50 years was not the fault of Jake White or his charges. They did what they had to do, while the others didn’t.

That made them a more professional outfit, and that counted in an era and tournament where professionalism was called for.

On the local front, the season will, to some extent, be remembered for the demise of the Blue Bulls in the domestic competitions where they won only the national Sevens title.

It is ironic, as this is the one competition the Blue Bulls have neglected in the past.

The Cheetahs, who lost only one match during the league phase of the Currie Cup, shaded the Lions in the Currie Cup final with a try two minutes from time.

But it may well have been a touch judge error that cost the Blue Bulls a place in the final when they lost to the Cheetahs in the Bloemfontein semifinal.

Both touch judges pronounced a kick from Derick Hougaard as a miss, which may have made a R4 million difference to the Lions’ coffers as it would have meant a final at Ellis Park against the Bulls and not an away game in Bloemfontein had the Blue Bulls won that semifinal. The Blue Bulls also relinquished the Vodacom Cup title when they lost against Griquas in Kimberley, with Zane Kirchner — who has since joined the Bulls — scoring the winning try after the hooter.

The club title was won by Stellenbosch University, who again had the advantage of playing at home and again had the easiest of draws.

The FNB Super Bowl for Universities was won by the Puk Rugby Institute of the North West University, who accounted for University of Johannesburg in the final at Potchefstroom.

The Blue Bulls women’s side lost their title to Eastern Province, and the Western Province Under-19s and Under-21s both beat the Blue Bulls in their respective finals.

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