A game too far?
Stephen Nell
December 19, 2011
South Africa's Bryan Hababa is wrapped up by the Australia defence, South Africa v Australia, Rugby World Cup Quarter-Final, Wellington Regional Stadium, Wellington, New Zealand, October 9, 2011
Springboks winger Bryan Habana is shackled by the Wallabies' defence during their Rugby World Cup quarter-final clash in Wellington © Getty Images

For the game that defined South Africa's rugby year, look no further than the quarter-final defeat to Australia at the World Cup.

However, the 2011 season was perhaps best summed up by the defeat to New Zealand in the final of the Port Elizabeth leg of the International Rugby Board's Sevens Series.

It was an illustration of the narrow margins that separates teams at the highest level. The Springbok Sevens side were beaten by a freak try in the dying embers of a final in a tournament in which they had been the best team up to that point.

The Boks had not been that at the World Cup, but there was also something freakish about their quarter-final defeat to the Wallabies. They had been the dominant side, but were beaten where it matters: on the scoreboard.

Did the Aussies do it with more than a little bit of help from Kiwi referee Bryce Lawrence? It's a question that will linger in South Africa, but one that ultimately matters little. The Springboks were dethroned.

In the Republic there is an apt saying that applies: Finish en klaar - a delightful coming together of English and Afrikaans ('en klaar' means 'and finished') to emphasise that the case is closed as the facts of a situation speaks for itself.

It's sad that it had to end that way for great warriors such as Victor Matfield, John Smit, Fourie du Preez, Jean de Villiers and Danie Rossouw.

However, it was an ending that had also been courted by coach Peter de Villiers not opting for dominant figures such as Bismarck du Plessis and Francois Hougaard in his starting line-up. Du Preez was the disappointment that no-one saw coming and ultimately a number of South Africa's old warriors had perhaps soldiered on for just too long.

The disappointing year should also be seen in the context of what had preceded it since the end-of-season tour of 2009. South Africa's international record had been poor since then and it was little wonder that they were considered World Cup outsiders from the outset.

The Springboks' sorry tale on the international front will bring us to the most important decision facing the South African Rugby Union (SARU) in the new year: the appointment of a Springbok coach.

Gert Smal is now considered the favourite, but don't be too surprised if it's Stormers coach Allister Coetzee or Blue Bulls elite teams manager Heyneke Meyer who gets the nod for the top job. Trust SARU's impressive new chief executive, Jurie Roux, to oversee a good process.

On the domestic front the South African game continues to thrive. There was a dip in the country's overall Super Rugby fortunes, with the Stormers providing the most impressive display by making a home semi-final. However, the Crusaders beat them for a second time at Newlands during their 2011 campaign.

"Schalk Burger will be a major contender to be the new Bok captain once the coach is announced late in January."

The Currie Cup continued to stir up the emotions of South African fans - perhaps more so in its closing weeks following the Springboks' elimination at the World Cup. It was predictably one of the teams with the least disruption in terms of providing players to the national side - the Lions - who lifted the trophy.

Coached by a New Zealander in John Mitchell, the Lions' lifting of South Africa's premier domestic trophy helped revive a brand that had been in serious trouble following a number of poor seasons. Mitchell has been hailed as a major coaching success story in South Africa and it will be interesting to see how the Lions fare once they meet tougher opponents in Super Rugby.

Schalk Burger scooped the country's Player of the Year award following a good season for the Stormers and some barnstorming displays in the World Cup. He will be a major contender to be the new Bok captain once the coach is announced late in January.

One of the big tasks facing any new coach will be building a new spine for the Boks following the departures of Smit, Bakkies Botha, Fourie du Preez, Gurthrö Steenkamp, Jaque Fourie and Rossouw. There is, of course, also the matter of Matfield's retirement to contend with.

South Africa also have to make the important decision of whether they are prepared to continue to select overseas-based players. If that is the case, they will be able to continue to call on Fourie, Steeenkamp and Du Preez.

Botha and Rossouw are no longer serious contenders, while Smit is finished with international rugby. There are good contenders to replace all of the abovementioned and the 2012 Super Rugby tournament should provide clarity of thought on how the new coach should go about his business. All in all South Africa cannot possibly be satisfied about what 2011 produced on the playing field as the defining game will forever remain the one that saw them relinquish their crown as world champions.

However, the overall state of the game remains healthy and there is much promise for 2012.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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