DOWN MEMORY LANE | Nick Mallett's classy Springboks of the late 1990s

Springbok wing Pieter Rossouw scores a try during South Africa’s 52-10 win over France in Paris on 22 November 1997.
Springbok wing Pieter Rossouw scores a try during South Africa’s 52-10 win over France in Paris on 22 November 1997.
Phil Cole/Allsport/Getty Images
  • In Sport24's latest series of DOWN MEMORY LANE features, Herman Mostert recalls the potent Springbok outfit of the late 1990s.
  • The Boks equalled the world record of winning 17 consecutive Tests for top tier nations.
  • Nick Mallett was head coach for 16 of those Tests.

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown the 2020 rugby calendar into disarray and left the sport's top brass scrambling for ideas and proposals to ensure the year has some sort of value.

It remains an open question whether the world champion Springboks will be in action in 2020 and, as part of a series of several "throwbacks", Sport24 has delved into the archives of memorable events in years gone by.

Since the Springboks' reintroduction into the international fold in 1992, the Rugby World Cup triumphs of 1995, 2007 and 2019 rightly stand out, but those weren't the only memorable moments for the men in Green and Gold.

For this series, Nick Mallett's Springbok class of the late 1990s was no doubt one of the best international teams in rugby union history. After taking over as head coach in late 1997, Mallett started his tenure with a world record-equalling 17 Test wins in a row.

Initially, the year 1997 was a tumultuous one for the Springboks.

Carel du Plessis, a legendary former winger but relatively inexperienced as a coach, was handed the coaching reins and it's fair to say he experienced a baptism of fire in his short stint of the national team.

The Boks suffered a home series defeat to the British & Irish Lions, and after losing their first three matches of that year's Tri-Nations, the writing was on the wall for Du Plessis.

Du Plessis was a genius on the playing field and was described by some as "ahead of his time" as a coach. However, his innovative coaching ideas did not immediately translate to success on the field and even a record 61-22 thumping of the Wallabies at Loftus Versfeld in the final Tri-Nations match was not enough for the "Prince of Wings" to keep his job.

In stepped Mallett, who had made headlines as coach of minnows Boland, who nearly made it to the semi-finals of the 1997 Currie Cup.

Under Mallett's tutelage, Boland became a serious threat to the so-called bigger provinces and their exploits were enough for him to land himself in the hot seat as national coach.

Mallett retained Natal Sharks No 8 Gary Teichmann as captain and from the get-go his appointment appeared a masterstroke.

In Mallett's first match in charge, the Boks walloped Italy 62-31 in Bologna on 8 November 1997 before edging a strong France outfit 36-32 in Lyon the following week.

But it was the second Test against Les Bleus in Paris that made the rugby world sit up and take note.

A Springbok team, which earlier in the year suffered an embarrassing 55-35 defeat to arch-rivals New Zealand, thumped France 52-10.

It was a seven-try romp with winger Pieter Rossouw crossing the whitewash four times - the match will be remembered for the victory lap done by the visitors in front of an astounded Parc des Princes crowd which booed their own team off the park.

England were swatted aside 29-11 at Twickenham the following week, and after a 68-10 annihilation of Scotland at Murrayfield, the heartache from earlier in the year was all but forgotten.

Mallett had started his tenure in the most emphatic of ways and critics who had doubts over his appointment had well and truly been won over.

The Boks had the perfect blend of youth and experience - a few stalwarts from the epic 1995 team: scrumhalf Joost van der Westhuizen, wing James Small, lock Mark Andrews, hooker James Dalton and prop Os du Randt were still at the peak of their powers, but young guns in the form of winger Rossouw, fullback Percy Montgomery, flyhalf Jannie de Beer, flankers Andre Venter and Rassie Erasmus and "super-sub" Bob Skinstad had breathed fresh life into the side.

Western Province and Free State had contested that year's Currie Cup final and it came as no surprise that several of their star players featured prominently.

The tour set the tone for what was to follow in 1998 when the Springboks romped to one impressive victory after the other.

There was a 2-0 series victory over Ireland as well as a record 96-13 win over hapless Wales in Pretoria, before a Tri-Nations victory which included home and away wins over the mighty All Blacks.

The win over New Zealand in Durban will be remembered for an epic comeback where the Boks fought back from 23-5 down to win 24-23.

The team continued their hot streak during the 1998 year-end tour to Europe, where a 27-13 win over Ireland in Dublin saw them equal the All Blacks team of 1965-1969 for the most consecutive Tests wins for top tier nations.

Another success over England at Twickenham would see South Africa take sole ownership of the record but a 13-7 defeat ended a spectacular run.

It was nevertheless an epic achievement, with Teichmann's charges (he was captain in all 17 Tests) amassing 662 points and conceding only 229 - on average translating to a 39-13 victory per game.

Unfortunately, the Springboks were unable to repeat those heroics the following year heading into the 1999 World Cup.

Mallett's relationship with Teichmann had turned sour and the latter was controversially axed ahead of the global showpiece in Wales, presumably because of the coach's preference for the talented and charismatic Skinstad.

Scrumhalf Van der Westhuizen was made captain for the World Cup and the Boks came agonisingly close to defending their title - it was only a freak drop goal by Wallabies flyhalf Stephen Larkham in extra-time of an epic semi-final that finally sunk the South Africans.

However, many rued Mallett's decision to drop Teichmann and the Bok mentor himself admitted in later years that he may have erred.

A third-place playoff win over New Zealand at the World Cup was enough for the coach to keep his job heading into the new millennium but the Mallett era came to an abrupt end when he criticised the-then South African Rugby Football Union (Sarfu) for selling Test tickets at inflated prices.

New Zealand (2015-2016) and England (2015-2017) currently share the record for most consecutive Test wins for top tier nations with 18, while the overall record belongs to minnows Cyprus, who won 24 consecutive internationals between 2008 and 2014.

South Africa's 17-Test win-streak in 1997-98:

August 1997: SA 61 Australia 22 (Pretoria)
November 1997: SA 62 Italy 31 (Bologna)
November 1997: SA 36 France 32 (Lyon)
November 1997: SA 52 France 10 (Paris)
November 1997: SA 29 England 11 (London)
December 1997: SA 68 Scotland 10 (Edinburgh)
June 1998: SA 37 Ireland 13 (Bloemfontein)
June 1998: SA 33 Ireland 0 (Pretoria)
June 1998: SA 96 Wales 13 (Pretoria)
July 1998: SA 18 England 0 (Cape Town)
July 1998: SA 14 Australia 13 (Perth)
July 1998: SA 13 NZ 3 (Wellington)
August 1998: SA 24 NZ 23 (Durban)
August 1998: SA 29 Australia 15 (Johannesburg)
November 1998: SA 28 Wales 20 (Cardiff)
November 1998: SA 35 Scotland 10 (Edinburgh)
November 1998: SA 27 Ireland 13 (Dublin)

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
Would you be keen to see the Springboks join the Six Nations?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Yes! The Northern Hemisphere is the future.
53% - 5228 votes
No! The Rugby Championship is still the pinnacle.
47% - 4605 votes