Johannesburg - What began as a hopeful year for South African rugby ended in yet another depressingly familiar false dawn.
Not for the first time, hope had sprung eternal that the Lions would go one up on making the Super Rugby final last season by winning the title this year; the Blitzboks would carry their strong early season form and win the World Sevens Series; and the Springboks would improve from losing eight of their 12 games last year.
Neil Powell’s men held up their end of the bargain by making eight out of a possible 10 finals to win their second World Sevens Series championship, but the rest flunked.
In a year in which Springbok coach Allister Coetzee, complete with reinforced backroom staffers in the form of Brendan Venter and Franco Smith, felt he’d had enough time to prepare and fix the team’s culture, the Boks merely flattered to deceive.
The start was promising enough, with a 3-0 win over the French and two back-to-back wins over Argentina, giving the impression that the problems of last year had been ironed out.
The catch was that the two teams were two of the weaker sides to emerge from those countries.
This explained why the wins dried up the moment the Springboks came up against Australia and New Zealand in the Rugby Championship, with two draws against the former and two very different defeats against the latter (by 57-0 and one point).
Given that the Wallabies gave the All Blacks the hurry up and eventually beat them in the final game of the Bledisloe Cup, the Boks’ draws against them meant they clearly didn’t have a killer instinct.
But the horrendous 57-0 loss to New Zealand in Albany and the biggest defeat by Ireland (38-3) in November meant that, after racking up more unwanted records, like losing to Italy last year, Coetzee will again finish the year hoping to hold on to his job.
With his record now standing at 11 wins after 25 games, or a 44% win ratio, it would be a miracle if he retains his job after his review on January 16.
Coetzee may have made strides with the Boks and may not be the only one to blame for the state of SA Rugby, but when the going got tough, he went back into his half-pregnant approach of coaching, which was looking for compromise when there were big decisions to be made.
Basic examples include spurning the opportunity to make Siya Kolisi captain when regular leader Warren Whiteley was injured and making conservative selections throughout the year.
Couple that with SA Rugby controversially losing out on its bid to host the 2023 World Cup to France – when World Rugby’s general council voted against its own independent evaluation of the bids, which favoured South Africa – and it hasn’t been such a great year.
There was a welcome injection of new sponsors, led by MTN and FNB, but not to the extent that every agent of every entitled player who thought he should play for the Boks didn’t ship him off to Europe in a huff when they didn’t get selected.
The Lions had unwittingly set the tone by not winning the Super Rugby title despite reaching the final for a second year in succession.
Despite fixing the one flaw in their 2016 Super Rugby campaign – not securing a home final – the Lions still fell short to a New Zealand team, this time the Crusaders, who won the trophy for the eighth time.
It’s tempting to blame Blitzboks player and flanker Kwagga Smith’s first-half sending off for the result, but the Lions hadn’t looked the part in the knockout stages, giving head starts to both the Sharks and the Hurricanes before reeling them in.
Looking ahead to next year, the Lions’ window to win Super Rugby may well have passed them by, what with the Ackermanns, coach Johan and flanker Ruan, having gone off to pick new fights (literally and figuratively) with Gloucester in the English Premiership and other squad members such as Faf de Klerk having chosen to further their careers elsewhere.
Also, the challenge from the Bulls, the Sharks and the Stormers – the other remaining South African teams in the competition – should be firmer than it was this year. Speaking of which, Sanzaar’s decision to drop the Southern Kings and the Cheetahs, as well as Australia’s Western Force, from Super Rugby to stop it from ballooning to the Super 50 in the near future, is working out for the local sides.
The early impressions of the Pro 14, the European competition in which they have been accommodated, are that it is vibrant and may well provide SA Rugby with answers on whether to put their lot in with European competitions, as opposed to Sanzaar, where they’ve always been treated like stepchildren.