Our five rugby writers - Jacques van der Westhuyzen, Mike Greenaway, Vata Ngobeni, Wynona Louw and Darryn Pollock - look back on the highs and lows of 2017. And they each have a wish list for 2018...
Jacques van der Westhuyzen
1. The Blitzboks started their season towards the end of 2016, but they finished this year with five tournament wins and the title of World Rugby Sevens Series champions. Neil Powell’s men played with passion, skill and desire and they were always a joy to watch. One of South African sports greatest exports.
2. Johan Ackermann’s Lions again flew the flag for SA in Super Rugby, reaching the final for the second year running. While they failed at the final hurdle, at home to the Crusaders, they again played entertaining and mostly winning rugby, and with just one defeat in the regular season were a cut above the rest.
3. One of the standout players for the Lions was Malcolm Marx, who continued his good form for the Springboks. The powerful hooker took his game to a new level this season, with his 10-out-of-10 performance - according to a Kiwi news organisation - against New Zealand at Newlands the highlight.
4. In a season that for many reasons won’t be remembered for anything major happening, the emergence of a number of young players lifted the gloom the Springboks brought to many fans’ homes. Here one thinks of Damian Willemse, Sbu Nkosi, Warrick Gelant, the Du Preez brothers and others.
5. The new SuperSport Rugby Challenge was a major success, with several games being taken to areas where provincial rugby would otherwise never feature. It gave fans an opportunity to watch some of the best emerging talent in SA, on a Sunday to boot, with Western Province coming out on top.
1. The performance of the Springboks was marginally better than in 2016, but also only because the seven wins (compared to four) came against opposition ranked much lower than the Springboks - France, Argentina and Italy. Record defeats against New Zealand and Ireland hurt SA’s rugby reputation.
2. Just two Tests into his reign as national captain Warren Whiteley was sidelined - for the rest of the year as it turned out - with a groin injury. It robbed the Springboks of a natural and highly-respected leader and deprived the player of a chance to show his worth - as a captain and Test-quality No 8.
3. The SA Rugby Union pumped plenty of energy, money and time into putting together an outstanding bid for the 2023 World Cup and were rewarded by being named the preferred bidder after an independent review. France pipping them at the vote left a bitter taste in the mouth.
My wish list for 2018
1. That John Mitchell can turn the Bulls into a force again, and not get on the wrong side of the players.
2. That Sharks boss Du Preez is able to find a smile before the next Super Rugby season gets under way.
3. And, that someone will pick backline players for the Boks who can dazzle, break a line, offload and score tries.
1. The Kwagga antelope is an extinct sub-species of the zebra, but it has been given a new lease on life by the irrepressible Albertus Smith, the 24-year-old Lions and Sevens star. His performance for the Barbarians against the All Blacks at Twickenham had the English commentary team in raptures.
2. The Blitzboks are the best Sevens team in the world. They are an absolute joy to watch. The handling skills and innate ability to attack space make a mockery of the perception that SA players can do little more than bulldoze into contact. The Blitzboks do this because they are so well coached.
3. It was unfortunate that the Lions lost the Super Rugby final at Ellis Park, but the unbridled celebrations of the Crusaders were a delightful throwback to a bygone era. Coach Scott Robertson breakdancing on the field, surrounded by clapping players, gave the lie to the perception that white men can’t dance!
4. The Stormers were in an arm wrestle with the Chiefs in April when Dillyn Leyds sparked a counter-attack where he raced 40 metres up field before he was tackled, but instead of the movement dying as the wing went to ground, he conjured a magical back-hand pass that found SP Marais in space for a startling try.
5. Aussie commentator Phil Kearns is notorious for his dim view of SA rugby but the former Wallaby hooker forgot his prejudice when Kings wing Makazole Mapimpi ran rings around the Reds defence, notably Karmichael Hunt, prompting Kearns to rave: “Brilliant, outstanding. Somebody give the Reds some dizzy pills.”
1. Never mind the Springboks’ 57-0 defeat in Auckland against an All Blacks team that hit their straps, much worse was the abject 38-3 disaster in Dublin. Hopeless, hapless and horrific... for Bok fans this no-show by their team was an hiatus in Hades itself. The Boks were lucky to get 3.
2. A grim-faced Bill Beaumont reading out “France” as if it was a swear word at the farcical announcement of the country to host the 2023 World Cup. The dear old sport of rugby - once a hooligan’s game played by gentleman - is sinking into the quicksand inhabited by football and the Olympic Games.
3. The infuriating participation of TMO officials. It is bad enough that the vacillating interrupts the game, but often the deliberations produce the wrong call. Too many games were adversely affected by cards. A crowd of 62 000 at the Super Rugby final was short-changed by the Kwagga red card for a marginal offence.
My wish list for for 2018
1. An improved challenge by the SA Super Rugby teams to support the Lions. It would be much easier for an SA team to win the title if the Aussie and Kiwi teams do not routinely win here. The Bulls will be vastly improved under Mitchell, the Sharks will be competitive, and the Stormers must come to the party.
2. Crowd attendance continues to dwindle in most stadiums. It is sickening to see rows of empty seats and stadiums bereft of atmosphere. The solution? Teams playing entertaining, winning rugby. Why was the Cape Town Sevens sold out? Fans knew they would get their money’s worth. Rugby is competing for the entertainment. So entertain!
3. Sack the SA Rugby board of directors. The Springboks are a professional entity that are presided over by gravy chain officials elected through the old amateur club system, and these free-loaders outnumber the full-time South African Rugby officials. In the business world, the South African Rugby board would have been sacked long ago.
1. Neil Powell and his team did well to win South Africa’s second Sevens Series title, but it was the manner in which they dominated the campaign that was impressive. They are by far the best team on the circuit and will be eyeing the Commonwealth Games and World Cup titles as well next year.
2. The Lions were sublime again in their charge to the Super Rugby final. They dominated all their opposition with the expansive brand of rugby that they have mastered. It is a pity they couldn’t seal the season with the trophy, but they will be better off mentally for losing their second consecutive final.
3. The arrival of Mitchell as the executive for rugby at Loftus has breathed life into a dying beast. The Bulls had hit rock bottom before Mitchell’s arrival and in a matter of seven weeks the New Zealander guided the team to a narrow semi-final loss to the Sharks in the Currie Cup.
4. Siya Kolisi was finally backed at his franchise and in the national team and he didn’t disappoint. He led the Stormers with aplomb, but it was his performances for the Boks that proved that Kolisi has come of age. He was unfortunate not to become Springbok captain, but it is only a matter of time before he leads the Boks.
5. There might be a wave of talent drain from South Africa to Europe and Japan, but there are plenty of youngsters emerging and looking to make their mark in the Currie Cup and Super Rugby. The likes of Willemse, Gelant, Nkosi, EW Viljoen, Ox Nche, Jean-Luc du Preez and many others are encouraging for the future of the game.
1. It wasn’t enough that last year was the worst season in Springbok history, this year they sunk to new lows with record defeats by the All Blacks and Ireland. The truth of the matter is that the Springboks continue to churn out mediocre performances and that was evident in their results.
2. Another horrific season where the Bulls (three-time Super Rugby champions, an age ago) suffered embarrassing and maiden defeats to the Sunwolves and Southern Kings. There was also a record home defeat against the Crusaders which rubbed salt into a gaping wound.With such a talented but inexperienced team, Nollis Marais’ lack of experience at Super Rugby was badly exposed.
3. How inept can an organisation be? Springbok rugby is a mess, South African teams are on a downward spiral in Super Rugby, women’s rugby is on its knees and so too club rugby, and the Currie Cup is nowhere. The biggest problem at Saru remains the voted-for office bearers instead of appointed experts making all the big decisions.
My wish list for 2018
1. The Blitzboks are already the best team in the world. Defending their Commonwealth gold medal and winning their maiden World Cup will lift them to rugby immortality.
2. The Springboks need to rise again and they will need to do so with a series win over England and to finally beat the All Blacks.
3. It’s been seven years since a South African team last won the Super Rugby title, so the Lions, Stormers and even Bulls need to make good of their potential.
1. What a delight it was to celebrate an achievement by a national rugby team this year!
2. What a year it was for Province. They followed up their winning ways in the inaugural SuperSport Rugby Challenge with Currie Cup victory, and in the process, they also played some fine attacking rugby. They also gave some of their most exciting talents exposure, and their depth is something to look forward to in years to come.
3. How stunning was Kolisi’s 2017? He produced his best performances in the Bok jersey, and in the process he made sure that his starting spot is far more likely than unlikely from here on (well, it should be). He also played brilliant rugby with the Stormers, and he’s taken home a number of awards to show for his work this season.
4. This year, the Lions were South Africa’s best-performing Super Rugby team yet again. They booked a final date with the Crusaders in Johannesburg, and one can only dream about what could have been had they been able to produce the performance they did in the final stages right from the start.
5. I think axing the three teams from the tournament was one of the best developments this year. Each team will play 12 of the other 15 teams - which brings back a bit of the fairness that was missing this year.
1. You’d only know the kind of disappointment that hung over the Cape Town Stadium when the Blitzboks went down to New Zealand in the semi-final of the Cape Town Sevens if you were there yourself. It was a massive let-down, especially since they gave South African rugby fans something to smile about just the week before in Dubai.
2. There’s too many to pick from, so I’ll just make this one a collective point. From the record defeats to the puzzling selections (or continued selections of puzzling ones), from the non-existent game plan to the post-match satisfaction with subpar results, the Springboks have provided a lot to be unhappy with this season.
3. Warren Whiteley’s injury was a massive blow for the Boks, not only because they had to find a replacement in the loose trio, but because of the kind of influence a captain like the Lions man could have brought to the struggling team this year. Yes, most of the things that happened on-field was a reflection of poor behind-the-scenes work, but there’s no telling how the inspirational Lions captain could have carried his men.
My wish list for 2018
1. This can’t be achieved in a year, but I wish next year can at least be the start. Size is overrated and skills underrated, severely.
2. No more passengers in the Springbok team. No more shutting the door on form players. And please, play them in their positions.
3. The rest of the rugby world is making the change, and so should the Boks. Get serious about attack, play the situation, just let players play.
1. The Blitzboks never really get the accolades they deserve. Being up there as one of the world’s best teams, they will win a few tournaments and play some incredible rugby, but like anything, it’s the trophies that we crave. With the Blitzboks winning the entire series convincingly last season, they demanded much more respect in a time when rugby in SA was in a lull.
2. The Sharks’ brand of rugby, and their general appearance to the rugby community, was waning after the hatchet job that Jake White did a few seasons back. They are now on the right path again and their decision to back youngsters has paid huge dividends. There are future Springbok legends waiting in that pack of youngsters in Durban.
3. The Springboks, so often tasked with bringing joy, have been failing for some time now, but for a brief stint in June this year they made people believe again. It was unfortunate that they did so against a weak French side, but it was still pleasing to beat a team so comprehensively after such a long stint of misery the year before.
4. A trawl through any rugby news and there are always punctuations of reports of talent fleeing our shores, both coaching and player personnel. However, the fact that SA Rugby has managed to haul back Brendan Venter, as well as Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber bodes well. There is still pride for South Africa and its rugby.
5. The Cheetahs and Kings joining the PRO14 is a great idea, and while the jury is still out on its success, it was a paradigm-breaking move by the powers that be. It saved two proud rugby regions from the mess that Super Rugby inflicted and could be a blueprint for a global season.
1. There are so many reasons to be despondent about the loss of a chance to host the Rugby World Cup, but mostly it was the embarrassment. Regardless of what happened behind closed doors, when it came to people having their say, they saw South Africa as not a good place for such a great event to come to...
2. The Boks have had two poor years under coach Allister Coetzee, and that is almost taken as fact now - except by the people that matter. Coetzee has put it up numerous times that he has been happy with the performances as a whole of his team, accepting mediocrity and pulling the Boks backwards.
3. Super Rugby, once touted as the greatest rugby tournament out there, has had its prestige ruined a few times now by its administrators. The latest debacle has seen Super Rugby punish the Cheetahs, Kings and Force for its greed in trying to expand too big and too fast.
My wish list for 2018
1. Coetzee has run his race, he has had too many chances and really it is time to give someone else a shot.
2. Nothing makes a South African feel better than getting one over on the old foe, and the country needs a bit of a boost, and a fresh start.
3. England are doing amazingly well, but if there is one team that knows when they are up, and are very smug about it, it’s England...