Cape Town - Greatness is subjective, always fiercely debatable … but isn’t it hard to dispute now that the Springboks’ 2019 calendar year is right up among the very best of them in history?
THE best, perhaps?
It is hard, you see, to think of an obviously eclipsing one.
This has joyously become the first year in the modern, professional era in which the Boks can lay claim to possession of both the World Cup title - their third, putting them even with New Zealand at the top of the Webb Ellis Cup leaderboard - and Rugby Championship (or previously-named Tri-Nations) simultaneously.
That has never previously happened for any of the southern hemisphere’s traditional “big three”: when Australia won the World Cup in 1999, the All Blacks were Tri-Nations champions that year, when the Boks won the World Cup in 2007 the Tri-Nations winners were the All Blacks, and in each of NZ’s successive RWC-winning tournaments in 2011 and 2015, the Wallabies had nipped in for the Tri-Nations in those years.
So that eye-opening feat alone is worth reflecting on when assessing the credentials of the Rassie Erasmus/Siya Kolisi-guided national side in this glittering 2019.
Yes, there is always the case for arguing that the Rugby Championship loses a little of its shine in a World Cup year, especially as it is generally held on an abbreviated, single-round basis.
But the Boks nevertheless saw their name engraved on that trophy for the first time in a decade, took the tournament seriously as a World Cup preparatory exercise, and came out of it undefeated, having whipped both Australia and Argentina and drawn 16-16 with New Zealand in Wellington.
The first-up game against the Wallabies in Johannesburg had also seen coach Erasmus name a decidedly reserve-strength line-up, as he worked toward the depth-based policy that has proved so successful and even pivotal in Japan ... and his charges duly earned a sparkling 35-17 triumph at Ellis Park.
These Boks end 2019 (remember that Erasmus’s first year in charge in 2018 had seen them earn an unremarkable 7/14 win record, so 50 percent) with 10 victories from 12 Tests, including a stalemate and just the lone reverse to the All Blacks right at the start of World Cup pool play.
That translates to a win percentage of 83.33, also beefing up the mastermind’s overall record in charge to 17 from 26 - 65.38 percent.
The Boks of the 1995-and-onward era do boast certain years where the win percentage in Tests has been higher, like 1995 itself where, under the charge of the late Kitch Christie, they earned 10/10 including their maiden RWC success on the slightly easier terrain of home soil.
But there was no mettle-testing Tri-Nations on the roster yet, and several of the Bok victories of ’95 were earned against considerably lesser foes, whether within the World Cup or either side of it.
During the Nick Mallett heyday period, in 1998, the Boks won 11 of their 12 Test matches for a 91.66 percent figure ... only deprived of a Grand Slam (victories against all of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales on the same tour) in the very last end-of-year match when the English won 13-7 at Twickenham.
In that year had also been the maiden Bok Tri-Nations title success, so it certainly goes down as a very good ‘un, even if the absence of a World Cup - it was one year short of one - dilutes it just a bit.
What about 2007, the year when the Boks last beat England in a World Cup final to claim the trophy for a second time?
It was a year in which the Jake White/John Smit outfit earned 14 wins from 17 Tests (82.35 percent), but marked by a poor Tri-Nations - the Boks losing three of four matches in it.
Then there is the Peter de Villiers-era 2009 year: South Africa earned two notable milestones in fairly quick succession, winning their last series against the British and Irish Lions - due on our shores again in 2021 - by a 2-1 margin, and also the Tri-Nations later, including a 3/3 record against the All Blacks that year.
But again, there was no gravitas-topping RWC that year, and the overall Bok record in 2009 was eight wins in 12 Tests (66.66 percent), including losing two matches in Europe at year’s end.
It is more difficult to judge Bok calendar years in the “amateur” era, as sometimes their Test itineraries were notably skinny and the important yardstick of the World Cup event had not yet been invented (until 1987, when SA were still absentees), either.
There are iconic Bok years for specific achievements, like Philip Nel’s first and still only Bok outfit - in 1937 - to win a properly-constituted series on New Zealand soil (the gruelling tour having also included series victory in Australia), and four instances in which Bok sides have earned Grand Slams in northern climes (1912/13, 1931/32, 1951/52 and 1960/61).
Yes, it could feasibly top ‘em all ...
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