This past weekend saw the end of the Southern Hemisphere 15-man rugby season… a long and arduous season.
Now only the HSBC Sevens World Series Nelson Mandela Bay Sevens tournament remains, after which we, as proud Southerners, have to rely on the scraps of rugby coming to us from the Northern Hemisphere, and then fill in the gaps with some cricket action to keep our sport addictions alive.
The South African Blitzbokke provide scant hopes for a good result in Port Elizabeth this coming weekend, but the party will continue… and we will party right along.
On the positive side, it was a good season again for Southern Hemisphere rugby, spoilt by the fantastic wins by France against the Wallabies about a month ago and of course the Coup de Grace by the England rugby side against the world number one side, the New Zealand All Blacks, this past weekend – lambasting them by a massive 38 / 21.
Hereafter a quick look at the respective seasons of the BIG BOYS of Southern Hemisphere Rugby:
Well, Super Rugby did not go well for them, with only the Conference System giving them assistance to have a team in the play-off’s. The Reds had a dismal season compared to the winning season of the year before, whilst the young Brumbies surprized all with a better than expected season… under a South African coach.
On the international front, Robbie Deans has barely clung onto his job as Wallabies coach, after it appeared that there are severe cracks under the surface of a plastered over Wallaby performance. Of course the rebel without an apparent cause, Quade Cooper, did not make it any easier for Australia, accusing the team environment as being poisoned.
The Wallbies finest moment of the season was probably the 18 / 18 draw against the All Blacks a week or so after conclusion of The Rugby Championship, whereas their worst moment was the absolute drubbing they took on The End Of year Tours to the French (33 / 6).
In addition the Wallabies scraped home against England (20 / 14) and against Wales (14 / 12).
Nathan Sharpe, the giant with the freekish eyes, captain of the embattled Wallaby side has also announced his retirement this weekend.
Super Rugby did not always go their way this season, with a very poor showing by the Blues top of the list, but the Chiefs played wonderfully balanced rugby and had a stellar season, taking the Super Rugby title with consumate ease against the travel weary Sharks from South Africa. This was the Chiefs first ever Super Rugby title, and well done to them. The one thing they showed all and sundry was that you can mix staunch defence with wonderful attacking nous.
The Chiefs laid the platform or set the standard, hopefully, for teams (Specifically South African teams) to embrace the ball-in-hand approach, mixing it with strong set pieces and giving due value to the breakdowns. Hell, I sound like a Chiefs supporter, but heck you have to give credit where due!
On the international front, the All Blacks – number one side in world rugby, continued their world dominance with an almost unbeaten season, just stumbling at the last hurdle against a fired up young England side this past weekend (21 / 38). They were undefeated in the June internationals, undefeated in The Rugby Championship, had a bit of a scare against the Wallabies when they drew 18 / 18 after The Rugby Championship and came one important match short of an unbeaten End Of Year Tour.
If you ask me though, the cracks are beginning to show… the Springboks had every chance of beating them in Dunedin, having dominated the All Blacks forwards on that occasion, the Wallabies showed that they are vulnerable and even Italy held them well a few weeks ago until the All blacks ran in some final tries to make the score look better than it should have. Of course England hammered the All Black side, showing exactly where they are vulnerable.
The All Blacks have average locks, a less than secure set piece element to their game, but a wonderful attacking skill set.
However, one still does not scoff at a national season of played 14, won 12, drawn 1 and losing only 1 game.
They are deserved holders of both the World Cup as well as the 2012 Rugby Championship trophies.
Not a bad Super Rugby season at all, with 3 sides placed in the top 6 before the play-off’s and the Sharks losing to the Chiefs in the Final. The Stormers continued their defence oriented domination of the South African Conference, winning it and then falling out of the bus when the chips were down.
The Bulls, in a rebuilding year, after the retirement or migration north of massive players in their history (Gurtho Steenkamp, Gary Botha, Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield, Danie Rossouw & Fourie du Preez) did not do badly in retrospective, ending above the Sharks in 5th spot, then failing to go further.
The Sharks had a very poor start to the Super Rugby season, winning only 5 games of the first 10, then hammering down and getting their act together, till the last hurdle was one too much, the final in New Zealand against the high-stepping Chiefs. Kudo’s though to the Sharks who had to travel back and forth over the oceans at the end of Super Rugby. Their balanced apprach of strong forwards and running rugby served them well.
The Cheetahs showed promise at times, but were eventually reduced to also -ran’s, failing to come close enough to the play-off’s. Depth is a real problem at the Cheetahs and injuries ravished them once again this season.
Of course someone has to carry the South African wooden spoon and who else but the Lions to do so! They played some enterprising rugby at times with limited player resources and they were under the sword of SARU throughout, knowing they might get the relegation chop, which eventually happened, having now been replaced for 2013 by the Southern Kings. The less we say about the stench which eminates from SARU in handling the Lions vs Southern Kings saga, the better.
On the international front the Springboks was under a new coach and many players were not available due to injury or due to retirement or going north after a pension cheque. In addition the new coach, Heyneke Meyer, had to contend with the decaying legacy the previous Springbok coach, Peter de Villiers, left him as well as a staff of assistants only plucked from the leftovers who were prepared to work with him… not many were available due to the poisoned chalice it has proved to be in the last number of years.
SARU also did not do Heyneke Meyer any favours, giving him only 5 days to prepare a team for his first Test in charge in June against England. The Springboks won the first two Tests, one good half in the one Test and one good half in the second Test, then drew the 3rd Test against England in Port Elizabeth.
Then the Springboks returned to their franchises to resume playing more Super Rugby.
When The Rugby Championship kicked off, the Springboks won against the Pumas from Argentina at Newlands (27 / 6), then travelled to Mendoza in Argentina and quite frankly were surprized by a fired-up Pumas side at home – drawing that encounter (16 / 16).
Suddenly the knives were out and sharpened by some South Africans, with a Springbok record then reflecting 3 wins and 2 draws, for Heyneke Meyer. What fickle South African rugby consumers (one cannot call them supporters) we have!
Heyneke Meyer was labelled as archaic, limited, Bulls-friendly and out of his depths, these mongrel consumers conveniently forgetting the hand which was dealt to Heyneke Meyer, as detailed above.
To Australia the Springboks went and a 26 / 19 loss to a jaded Wallaby side added more feul to the fire of the doubters and blatant haters.
Must be said though, Heyneke Meyer did not make it easier on himself with selections of the likes of Jacques Potgieter, JJ Engelbrecht and persisting with a clearly out of form Morné Steyn, whilst leaving everybody’s love child, Patrick Lambie, sitting idle on the bench.
In New Zealand there were signs of massive progression with the Springbok forwards suddenly starting to gel and man-shaming the All Blacks at times. Johan Goosen, the talented Cheetahs youngster was given game time and showed promise but the old hands of All Blacks rugby steadied their ship to eak out a win (21 / 11) they did not deserve on the day.
Back to South Africa and it was the Springboks turn to take on a wobbling Wallaby side at Loftus, where the Springboks ran in 5 tries to 1, defeating them with relative ease (31 / 8).
Great expectations were now harboured of the Springboks for the return match against the All Blacks at FNB Staduim (Soccer City near Soweto). Johan Goosen was chosen to start at flyhalf despite carrying a niggling heel injury and the first half went well, South Africa leading at the break. At halftime however Elton Jantjies had already replaced Johan Goosen, who was off injured, and the All Blacks just upped a gear or two, putting the Springboks to the sword in the second half, eventually running out comfortable winners (32 / 16)… in South Africa of all places.
Of course, this was more feul for the Meyer-doubters and the derogatory nicknames abounded.
Some calls were coming out from the ill-informed that South Africa was better off with the previous Springbok coach, that funny little man, Peter de Villiers. Those who stuck by Heyneke Meyer were tarred with the brush of having a secret enfatuation with Meyer, I suppose I was one of those scoffed at.
Meantime all of us were baying for Heyneke Meyer to start moving away from the kick-and-chase approach and to migrate to a more ball-in-hand and possession-oriented approach.
The Currie Cup interrupted the national cause again, with the returning Springboks, warts and all and niggling injuries notwithstanding, drafted left, right and centre into the final stages of the South African premier domestic competition.
It would be amiss at this stage not to mention that Western Province took the Currie Cup by the scruff of the neck and demolished a jaded Sharks side in the Currie Cup final. Well done Province, a significant trophy finally in the cupboard after 11 meagre years.
In this long season however this was not the end, and it was time for The End Of Year Tours, South Africa being blessed with the fact that they only had to face three sides on tour.
Against Ireland, once again the Springboks had a bad half followed by a very strong and determined comeback half to win the Test (26 / 12). Patrick Lambie was given a starting spot at flyhalf but Heyneke Meyer was once again castigated for dictating terms to Patrick Lambie and the feeling amongst many was that Heyneke was stunting the young man by forcing him to vary from his natural style of play in favour of a kicking approach. The less I say about that falacy, the better.
Against Scotland Lambie was preferred again and the Springboks did enough in the first half to beat back a spirited comeback from Scotland in the second half, to hold out to win (21 / 10).
The margins of the wins against Ireland and Scotland was not inspiring though.
Two weeks ago we saw the final Springbok Test against England. The Springboks built an innings, leading relatively comfortably at the break. England rallied and ran the Springboks close, the Springboks eaking out a 16 / 15 win, also earning them an unbeaten tour to the north in 2012.
Suddenly the Springbok season seemed somewhat better and the undertones of supporter’s murmur was more positive for a change, the Springboks having played 12 games, winning 7, drawing 2 and losing only 3.
The coaching flavour currently is that some answers have been found by Heyneke Meyer. It also seems that the positivity of his tenure is a bit boyed and some players have really stepped up to the mark. Francois Louw and Eben Etzebeth have been relevations in this difficult year, but some answers are still needed at scrumhalf, flyhalf, inside and outside centre and probably at fullback.
It is clear that Springbok defensive structures are now sound, maybe even the best in the world at present, whereas their backline attack is limited and inept at times. Still more work has to be done to move to a more ball-in-hand approach and to embrace possession rugby. Rucks would have to be cleared and cleaned better, to give access to faster ball for the backline to work with.
Whatever you think about Heyneke Meyer and this Springbok side, about the limitations they exhibit, I think we can all agree that there has been some progression both in the way they play as well as in the players now in the saddle. One can’t help thinking though that a new kicking coach and a new backline coach might be the answer going forward.
It was a season of new beginnings for the Pumas from Argentina. With most of their frontline players applying their trade in France and the UK, it was clear that the benefit of regular competition of the highest order was beneficial to Los Pumas. The Pumas entered into The Rugby Championship (previously known as the Tri-Nations) with verve and energy.
Their first game up was in Cape Town against the Springboks and they came out of the game with a loss but also with a lot of credit on their card. Their first game at home in Mendoza was laced with pride, endeavour, passion and guts and they were unlucky to draw against the Springboks (16 / 16).
They then travelled to Australasia, losing to but not being shamed by the All Blacks (21 / 5) and very narrowly losing to the Wallabies (23 / 19). On home turf the Pumas took a pounding against the All Blacks (54 / 15) and then we expected them to butcher the Wallabies and to show that same passion again which they showed against the Springboks, but they lost to the Wallabies (25 / 19).
Still one has to describe their first season into The Rugby Championship as a relatively good one against the world’s top 3 sides.
On the End Of Year Tours, they beat Wales convincingly (26 / 12), then lost to the French (39 / 22) and finally got hammered by Ireland. Also a mixed bag tour for them.