DURBAN – IOL Sport's rugby writer Darryn Pollock lists some of his highlights of the year:
Springboks claim victory in New Zealand
Undoubtedly, the biggest highlight of the rugby year was the unexpected victory from the Springboks over old rivals the All Blacks, especially on enemy soil. The past few years had seen the devolution of the fiercest rugby rivalry as the Boks got rolled too many times, but after succumbing to Argentina and Australia in the Rugby Championship, the Springboks mounted an unbelievable effort to stun the All Blacks, and most of the rugby world, with a well-executed game plan.
Not only was the win an important one in the context of the rugby rivalry, but its timing was paramount. Rassie Erasmus was starting to the lose faith of the public but he showed his coaching prowess and tactical know-how in this win.
Sharks show their potential in the Currie Cup
The Sharks, in the Currie Cup especially, boasted so much potential and promise - this harking back to the 2017 edition as well - and they finally came good as they repeated history to claim some much-needed silverware. In 2017, the men from Durban went 10 games unbeaten only to falter at the end of the competition, allowing Western Province to outplay them at home to claim the title and leave the Sharks as runners-up.
In this year’s edition, there was heavy pressure on coach Robert du Preez as the only way to improve would be to lift the trophy. He had a similarly strong squad and some more talented youngsters, and despite not being the best side through the round robins, mustered his team to win away from home.
Cheetahs show their claws in the PRO14
Having been left out in the Super Rugby cold, along with the Southern Kings, it was always going to be interesting keeping an eye on South Africa’s rugby heartland, the Free State, and to see how they fared in their inaugural and unprecedented move to the then PRO12. The Celtic league was mostly an unknown entity for fans of the Cheetahs and the team alike, but it was pleasing to see that the men from the Free State did not let their abandonment from Super Rugby affect them too much as they entertained up north. In their opening season, the Cheetahs managed to make the play-offs after finishing third in Conference A behind powerhouses like Ireland’s Munster and Scotland’s Glasgow Warriors.
Lions have a life after Ackermann
There was little denying that a lot of the Lions’ recent success had been off the back of good work done by former coach and Bok lock Johan Ackermann. The coach managed to build up the Lions team from a bunch of other teams' Super Rugby discards and created a strong brotherhood that played attractive and winning rugby. This led them to two Super Rugby finals under the coach.
When Ackermann was lured up north to coach Gloucester, there were many who were concerned that the magic might go with him as he left his very able deputy Swys de Bruin in charge. However, the former assistant turned chief proved that the Lions' brand of rugby and brotherhood was sturdy enough as he led them to yet another Super Rugby final.
Bok youngster shines on the world stage
Since the days of superstars like Schalk Burger, Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez and Bryan Habana, there has been very few Springboks who could “walk into any team in the world”, as they say. However, this year saw the emergence of a few superstars in the making. Lions speedster Aphiwe Dyantyi repaid Bok coach Erasmus’s faith in him by shining bright whenever he got his chance in the green and gold.
In fact, his brilliance was recognised on the world stage as the winger was crowned World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year after a stellar first season in the big leagues.@DarrynJack216