The year we ruled the world

2007-12-29 00:00

It has been the most schizophrenic of times for those rugby supporters who follow the fortunes of the Sharks and the Springboks.

Those old impostors, disaster and triumph, defeat and victory, played havoc with the emotions of the Sharks’ followers in the latter months of the 2007 season.

First came the disastrous closing moments of the Super 14 final. Panicky Sharks rugby, poor refereeing and the brilliance of Bryan Habana secured a Bulls’ victory and launched a thousand nightmares that lingered, lingered and lingered. Sweet sleep finally arrived with the fairy-tale triumph in the Rugby World Cup in Paris dulling the more painful King’s Park memories.

Still, captain and hooker John Smit, replaced and squirming on the Sharks bench in the closing minutes in Durban, came within a failed conversion and a missed touch-finder of holding up the Super 14 trophy and the Webb Ellis Cup in the same year.

In the overall analysis, though, this was a season to savour. The Sharks, against the odds but with a delightful mix of the veteran and the teenybopper, topped the Super 14 log and secured a home final even if they then somehow contrived to lose the trophy in injury time.

Dick Muir and his assistant John Plumtree made a remarkable impact and the Sharks are fortunate to have two of the more astute and innovative coaches in the country running the squad. They would also have learnt from the season and will still be regretting their decision — in that dramatic Durban final — to replace Percy Montgomery, one of the most consistent fullbacks in world rugby, and captain Smit for the last quarter and at a time when cool heads and an accurate goalkicker would surely have secured victory.

There was much that was positive to take from the Super 14 season. JP Pietersen emerged as the top try-scorer in the competition and played his way into the World Cup starting line-up, Butch James, calmer, more consistent but still physically involved, nailed down the Bok flyhalf berth and Monty kept rolling along, rarely out of position and kicking the goals that mattered.

Bok coach Jake White loaded his World Cup squad with Sharks but the young players that remained in Durban for the Currie Cup continued to advance and impress. Inspired by caretaker coach Plumtree, the largely second-string side enjoyed an excellent campaign, finished second on the log but then saved their worst for last as they went walkabout in the semi-final against the Lions at King’s Park to lose a match they should have won by some distance.

Muir and Plumtree nevertheless had reason to be satisfied with the season and the emergence and improvement of a number of young players including scrumhalf Rory Kockott, lock Steven Sykes, props Pat Cilliers and Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira, loose forwards Ryan Kankowski and Jacques Botes and centres Waylon Murray and Brad Barritt.

The return of the World Cup Boks will boost the Sharks in most areas but there is no substitute for experience and Smit, James and Montgomery are certain to be missed. The squad may also lack power and physicality — a natural back-up to AJ Venter — at loose forward and in the second-row and Muir needs to pull a beefy forward from the hat before the Super 14 starts in mid-February.

While Muir’s Super 14 campaign went astray in the closing seconds of the season, the Springbok coach’s World Cup plan fell neatly into place. Jake White, for a number of seasons, knew precisely who he wanted in his starting line-up; All Blacks coach Graham Henry, in contrast, appeared confused by the depth in his squad as he chopped, changed and lost continuity.

The rugby gods also smiled on White. The early Tri-Nations defeats at home allowed him to rest all his key players for the away leg and his squad went to the World Cup relatively fresh and free of injury. The controversy White caused, particularly in Australia, by leaving his high profile players at home for the Tri-Nations was quickly forgotten as he brought home the World Cup.

The injuries the Boks did pick up worked in White’s favour. The loss of first-choice centre Jean de Villiers brought long-range kicker and resolute defender Frans Steyn into the mix; the illness of number eight Pierre Spies resulted in the physical Danie Rossouw’s inclusion in the starting line-up and he was an ideal choice against the brawny England pack in the final.

The draw also opened up beautifully for White and the Boks. He had been planning for the England first-round game for four years and to get them in the final, after beating them twice at home in the World Cup build-up and then in the first round, was a bonus. And, of course, no one could have possibly predicted that the Boks would win the big prize without having to beat at least one of New Zealand, Australia or France.

The late contracting of former Wallaby coach Eddie Jones was another timely boost. There may well have been South African coaches who would, and could, have offered the same advice as Jones; the major difference was that White was happy to listen and learn from the Australian.

White and Smit were also able to bring strong discipline to the Bok squad. The largely unsung Butch James, once regarded as a walking yellow card, hardly put a foot wrong while the team discipline in a taut final, and with Jonny Wilkinson in the opposite corner, remained excellent.

Yet, while White managed and planned his World Cup campaign perfectly, SA Rugby made it obvious he was not wanted; Henry was the architect of the failed All Black challenge and yet he has been retained. As someone wisely and succinctly remarked, “Graham Henry this year had the distinction of both taking the All Blacks out of the first half of the Super 14 and the second half of the World Cup.”

SA Rugby officials will settle on White’s replacement early next month. The committee appointed to name his successor is apparently split down the middle. Pieter de Villiers is backed by those who believe it is time Springboks had a coach of colour while Heyneke Meyer is publicly supported by Victor Matfield and others who see the Bulls coach as the one best qualified to keep the Boks on the winning path. Jake White said Allister Coetzee, the Boks’ backline coach for the past four years, is his obvious replacement — and that is almost certainly a kiss of death for his former assistant. The Boks are world champions, but South African rugby will continue to move in strange ways.

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