One All Black blot
Tue, 24 Dec 2013 13:03
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South Africa finished 2013 in the same position on the IRB world rankings in which they started the year - second place.
On the surface it may seem there was no significant progress in year two under coach Heyneke Meyer.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Yes, New Zealand have cemented their place at the top of the standings with an unbeaten run this year, while the All Blacks also increased their 'lead' over the Springboks by 1.33 rankings points (from 3.14 to 4.47).
However, the Boks in turn have cemented their second place by opening a gap of 2.46 rankings points on the third-placed Australians - after starting the year by a slender margin of just 0.07.
It was their most successful season since 1998, winning 10 of their 12 matches this year for an impressive 83 percent winning record.
These statistics tell only part of the story
The only team to beat SA was New Zealand. Yes, that is the only blot (two blots if you want to get technical) on the Boks' 2013 record.
We'll deal with the controversies and significance of those defeats in more detail later in this report.
Firstly, the Boks have not lost a match on a year-end (Northern Hemisphere) tour since Meyer has taken charge. That is six consecutive wins over Ireland (in Dublin), Scotland (in Edinburgh), England (in London), Wales (in Cardiff), Scotland (Edinburgh) and France (in Paris).
And then there was the fact that the Boks opened a considerable gap over Australia, beating them twice this year - their first back-to-back wins over the Wallabies in a calendar year since 2009.
The highlight of the year was South Africa's impressive 38-12 routing of Australia in Brisbane, their first-ever victory at the Suncorp Stadium and the first time since 1971 that they won in Brisbane.
It was their most clinical performance this year and gave a glimpse of just how good the Boks can be when they get it together.
But let us start at the beginning.
The Boks continued where they left off on the 2012 end-of-year tour beating Italy, Scotland and Samoa in the four-nations tournament in June.
Then followed the opening rounds of the Rugby Championship - which produced a record nine-try (73-13) thumping of Argentina in Soweto that gave the first indication that the Boks were busy evolving into a team that can mix an expansive game with their tactical approach. It was quickly followed by a disappointing five-point (22-17) win in Mendoza.
At least, unlike last year, South Africa won in Argentina.
Then came the historic and impressive 38-12 routing of Australia in Brisbane.
While the Brisbane Test could be considered the highlight of the year, the showdown with the All Blacks a week later was, without doubt, the low point and included some downright ridiculous and clueless refereeing by Frenchman Romain Poite.
Poite flashed a red card at imposing hooker Bismarck du Plessis in the 42nd minute of the clash, following two yellow-card decisions.
It prompted both SANZAR and the IRB to intervene - removing both the red card and the first of two yellow cards from his record, condemning the French match official and removing him from refereeing panels for a while.
And the second yellow card, while remaining on Du Plessis' record, was also questionable. While the histrionic New Zealand media still continue to make reference to Du Plessis 'elbow to the throat' of Liam Messam, objective observers will rightly point it was no worse than any number of similar 'fends' by numerous players (including Messam himself) that were overlooked. It is worth noting that Du Plessis' elbow first connected high on Messam's chest, before sliding up towards the shoulder/neck area.
That aside, despite being a man down against the best team in the world for the rest of the match, the Boks put up a valiant effort to bow out with their heads held high with the All Blacks winning 29-15.
Next followed another convincing (28-8) win over Australia, at Newlands, and then what was the match of the year.
The Boks and All Blacks went head-to-head at Ellis Park in October.
With the Boks still in with a shout to take the Championship title for the first time since 2009, the stage was set for a riveting match.
South Africa went into the game needing a win with a four-try bonus point, as well as having to deny the Kiwis a bonus point.
While the Springboks managed to score four tries, their deviation from a more pragmatic approach played into New Zealand's hands which saw the visitors winning 38-27 and with it the title.
The victory only tightened the All Blacks' stranglehold on the Boks, having won all four matches between the two sides since Heyneke Meyer took control of the South African side.
With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps the Springboks should have stuck with the game plan which held them in good stead throughout the year instead of the expansive, all-out attacking style they employed in the Ellis Park Test.
A victory would also have denied the Kiwis their perfect record, but Meyer and his troops should be commended for going for gold instead of aiming for second best.
The team opened their end-of-year tour beating Six Nations champions Wales in Cardiff, and went on to collect the scalps of Scotland in Edinburgh and the French in Paris, ending the season with an impressive winning record.
The rise of prodigious lock Eben Etzebeth had been nothing short of a revelation this season as he demonstrated maturity which belied his age.
His mammoth performances in the green and gold earned him, not only South African accolades, but a nomination for the IRB's 2013 Player of the Year - an indication he had arrived on the international stage.
The introduction of the unpredictable Willie le Roux brought a new dimension to the Springboks' backline with the playmaker proving to be a perfect fit either as fullback or wing.
The year was also characterised by the return of Springbok stalwarts Fourie du Preez at scrumhalf, centre Jaque Fourie and enforcer lock Bakkies Botha after an absence of almost two years.
Meyer scored a major coup by being able to call on the experience of Du Preez after he had made himself unavailable owing to club responsibilities in Japan after the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand.
His experience and ability to read the game was immediately felt in his return to the Springbok fold, playing off the bench in the opening Rugby Championship match against Argentina in Soweto.
Fourie made his comeback against Wales and was selected in the starting XV in all three matches of the tour, along with wing JP Pietersen who also saw Springbok action for the first time in 2013.
Du Plessis established himself as the best hooker in world rugby, with teammate Adriaan Strauss ranking a fraction behind him.
Springbok captain Jean de Villiers has grown in stature as the leader of the team, proving to be a diplomat on and off the field, while he also produced arguably the best rugby of the year.
The Boks laid the perfect foundation in 2013 to see them challenge New Zealand for world supremacy the year before the 2015 World Cup in England.
As for Meyer. He made it clear that 2012 was going to be the year in which he would separate the wheat from the chaff.
He has now an established team and busy building some serious depth, something that will be invaluable at the 2015 World Cup in England.
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