Johannesburg - Despite the Bulls setting up a series of records in their 61-17 annihilation of the Chiefs in the Super 14 final to win the title for the second time, 2009 will be regarded as a rather average year for South Africa in this competition.
In 2008 the high-riding Sharks lost three consecutive matches on their Australasian tour which relegated them to an away semi-final which they lost.
This year, however, they lost the plot at home after a reasonable overseas leg which let them well-poised to make the playoffs.
Four of their five defeats in 2009 came in their last five matches, including a 31-6 drubbing by the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein. The other three defeats in the run-in were in Durban.
The sequence of defeats saw the Sharks drop to sixth place and out of the playoffs.
The much-mentioned strength in depth of South Africa was hardly noticeable when the Cheetahs (last), the Lions, (12th) and the Stormers (10th) took up three of the last five places in the competition while the Bulls returned from a rather average tour - two wins from five matches - to build on their four wins from four before they left for Australasia.
In the end, the Bulls won all their matches at Loftus - including a semi-final and the final.
With two games to go and two local sides, the Cheetahs and Sharks lying in wait, the Bulls knew what they needed to do to make the semi-final.
The lowly placed Cheetahs, as always, played like men possessed at Loftus. The Bulls won 29-20 thanks to a late Bryan Habana intercept. Akona Ndungane scored twice and Chiliboy Ralepelle scored his first points of the season.
The Bulls knew a win against the Sharks at Absa Stadium could make the dream of a home final come true. The Bulls won 27-26 despite a try by the Sharks very late in the game. The one-point difference in the final score does not reflect the Bulls’ dominance.
Kirchner scored neatly in the corner; Ndungane was sharp to finish with his try and Danie Rossouw powerful in his surge for the line. Morn Steyn kicked two drop goals to add to the three conversions.
The Bulls now had to beat perennial champions, the fourth-placed Crusaders, in the semi-final at Loftus to have their first ever final at home.
It was a tough ask. The Crusaders had won the Super 12 competition five times between 1998 and 2005 and the Super 14 twice (in 2006 and 2008).
Three of their titles were won away from home; they’d won nine of their 10 semi-finals; and they boasted 26 consecutive home wins between 2004 and 2007.
Steyn was outstanding in the semi-final. He kicked four drop goals, two conversions and a penalty in the 36-23 win where the Bulls came back from being 20-0 down.
The Chiefs beat the Hurricanes in Hamilton to reach the final. They scored first in the Loftus final, but then the Bulls scored four tries in quick succession to blow the visitors away.
Fourie du Preez was brilliant in scoring the first two tries, only seven minutes apart. Bryan Habana also scored twice, and Wynand Olivier, Pierre Spies, Rossouw and captain Victor Matfield added tries in this amazing performance by the Bulls.
The Bulls recorded a number of new records in the season. Their 10 wins were the most for the franchise in one season and also the most for any South African team since the 14-team format came into being.
The Bulls scored 37 tries and conceded 33. Habana scored eight of those tries, Spies seven and Ndungane and Olivier six each.
And the 61-17 was a record win in the final.
Morn Steyn’s 191 points were also the most in the competition, the highest ever for a Bulls player and his 11 drop goals a new competition record. He was named Bulls Super 14 player of the year and received the same award from SA Rugby.
The Bulls used only 29 players in their campaign, and the conditioning of the team that ensured continuity was undoubtedly a huge factor in the team’s success.
In the Currie Cup, the Sharks also contrived to lose the Cup after 12 wins from their 14 league matches, with only Western Province having the better of them in both their clashes.
Once again, the Currie Cup - both the Premier and First Divisions - produced drama and some excellent rugby and kept the fans enthralled.
A super scrummaging performance by the Cheetahs in the semi-final against the Sharks in Durban saw them win 23-21 to set up a final with the Blue Bulls, who had overcome WP 21-19 in an acrimonious match at Newlands where unpleasant crowd behaviour didn’t do the game of rugby much good.
It took a huge Morne Steyn penalty in a swirling wind three minutes from time to clinch the game, with both the top two sides on the log having to watch the final on television.
Blue Bulls scrumhalf Fourie du Preez was brilliant in the final. He set up the first three tries by Francois Hougaard and Habana (2), the Blue Bulls were ahead 24-0 after 23 minutes.
But the Free State Cheetahs, who came back from a disastrous start to the competition when they lost their first four matches, fought back as they had done throughout the season and notably against the Sharks, when they were behind 15-3 at half-time and 18-6 shortly thereafter before shocking the Durban side 23-21.
In the final, after the Blue Bulls’ points deluge, the Cheetahs recovered to within six points at 27-21, but in the end the BMT of the Blue Bulls carried the day against a side that inexplicably struggled in the Super 14 where they had Griquas’ best players to call on.
It was also a season in which Griquas came of age with some great wins and more scares for the top sides. After leading the log for much of the season they were unfortunate to lose out on playing in the semis on points difference.
Combined with the Free State, a new confidence from the Cheetahs franchise could be a factor in the 2010 Super 14.
They have the guts and the talent, although perhaps not the depth, to do well in the Southern Hemisphere franchise competition, and the pressure is now on the Cheetahs to do just that.
The Leopards did well enough in their return to the Premier Division and will be even better in 2010, but the Boland Cavaliers were disappointing throughout.
Their relegation was expected, just as the positive atmosphere and new professional approach in Witbank are expected to see the Pumas come of age in next year’s Premier Division after winning the First Division with a single defeat from 10 matches.