The Springboks’ trophy cabinet may be jam-packed after a year in which they recorded a number of historic achievements but the Sharks’ once-promising attempts to acquire further elusive silverware ended in heartbreak. This is the tale of 2009.
Craig Lewis reports for IOL.
Having completed the series win against the British and Irish Lions before going on to claim the Tri-Nations trophy along with the Freedom Cup and Mandela Plate, the Springboks have brought home a number of glittering additions to reside alongside the Webb Ellis Cup. Not to mention the trophy-attaining feats of the Springbok Sevens team in the IRB World Series.
Unfortunately from the Sharks’ perspective, though, the “unstoppa-Bulls” wrested the Currie Cup away from the coastal franchise in 2009, adding to their Super 14 success after securing a win against the Cheetahs in the domestic final.
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In fact, it was also the men in blue who dumped their Durban foes out of the Super 14 with a one-point win in the final pool match of the Southern Hemisphere competition.
However, it is the Springboks who have rightfully captured plenty of the plaudits in 2009, having avenged the vanquished Bok generation of 1997, who suffered a 2-1 defeat to the British and Irish Lions.
Ironically, the 1997 and 2009 series’ followed a similar pattern, but essentially with the results in reverse, as the reigning World champions managed to deservedly win the first Test, then scraped home in the second encounter with a match- and series-winning penalty before being comprehensively defeated in the final Test.
In 1997, it was the Lions who backed up their victory in the opening Test with a narrow three-point victory in the second thanks to a winning drop-goal from Jeremy Guscott but were then hammered in the final game.
So, certainly, it was sweet revenge for the John Smit-led team, with the captain describing in his book, Captain in the Cauldron, just how special it was for the team to have secured the series win.
“The scale of relief that I experienced was similar to what I felt at the final whistle of the World Cup final. A sense of achievement mixed with utter relief engulfs you. You know that it’s done, it can’t be taken away…”
Undoubtedly, Smit’s leadership contributed greatly to the Springboks’ success against the tourists, but it was flyhalf Morne Steyn who propelled himself into the international limelight and Springbok-Lions folklore with his famous last-minute penalty in the second Test.
Indeed, it was also the Bulls star who made history in the Boks’ second Tri-Nations game against the All Blacks in Durban as he scored all of the team’s 31 points, breaking a host of records in the process as he guided his side to a resounding win.
On either side of this victory, the Boks won Tests in Bloemfontein and Cape Town and, although they did lose one match on tour to the Aussies, they were able to wrap up the title with another win in Perth and an elusive triumph in New Zealand.
Having unequivocally reaffirmed their status as world champions, stalwarts such as Smit, Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez, Bryan Habana and Jean de Villiers were central to the team’s success.
However, it was the return to top form of Pierre Spies, the impact of Jaque Fourie at outside centre, the breakdown brilliance of Heinrich Brussow and the goal-kicking surety of Steyn that added an extra dimension to the Bok team.
It is therefore hard to muster up one specific reason for the side’s abysmal performances on the end-of-year tour in which they managed to record just one solitary Test win against hapless Italy.
Fatigue, injuries and questionable selections are just some of the question marks that were raised while the team was abroad but ultimately it was an inspired France and Ireland who simply seemed to want the wins more.
Nevertheless, despite the disappointing end to a highly successful year, SA Rugby Union president Oregan Hoskins said the side rightfully deserved a lot of credit.
“It wasn’t so long ago that the Springboks had finished bottom of the Vodacom Tri-Nations for a fifth consecutive year, had been evicted from the Rugby World Cup at the quarter-final stage, had suffered the trauma of the Kamp Staaldraad and the Geo Cronje/Quinton Davids disputes and had slipped to fifth in the IRB’s world rankings.”
“It gives me the very greatest pleasure then to describe the 2009 season as one of the very best seasons in the history of South African rugby. We go into the second decade of the 21st century with our rugby as strong as at any time since the advent of professionalism – some would argue as strong as at any time in our history.”
However, it hasn’t quite been such a rosy year for the Sharks, who failed to build on the solid foundations they laid in both the Super 14 and Currie Cup, stumbling in the home straight of each competition.
The coastal franchise started the Super 14 in style, winning seven out of their first eight games, three of which were on tour but, after a shock defeat to the Cheetahs in April, their season began to unravel.
Having done an inordinate amount of work on defence during the competition, injuries started to take their toll and a fatigued and depleted team was unable to replicate its early form when it really mattered, losing four out of the team’s final five games to miss out on a play-off berth which had once looked so assured.
In the Currie Cup, though, the Sharks actually exceeded expectations for much of the pool stages, with a number of second-string players performing admirably in the absence of a host of Springboks, guiding the team to the top of the log.
Due largely to their hard work, the Sharks managed to finish in pole position, booking a third consecutive home semi-final, with the returning Boks having been re-integrated into the side.
However, for one reason or another, the team never quite gelled once the Boks were back and, with the first-choice combinations not firing, a resurgent Cheetahs team managed to overturn a 15-point deficit to inflict yet another heartbreaking defeat over their Durban foes.
After the disappointment of the Super 14 and Currie Cup conclusions, Sharks coach John Plumtree stressed that they would head into the new year with a resolute determination to right the wrongs of those failed campaigns.
“I think there’s a fair bit to prove, especially to ourselves. This year we set ourselves up in both competitions to do well and we let ourselves down at the end of them. Missing out on the Currie Cup final and missing out on the Super 14 semi-final wasn’t good enough. It’s important to learn from what we did wrong!”
So it’s certainly been a year to remember for the Springboks, who will undoubtedly be looking to take their game to even greater heights in 2010, while the Sharks will be under no illusions that they need to deliver a reversal of fortunes after a 2009 season of missed opportunities.Tweet