As we do at the end of every year and with their seasons over till February, we look back at the highs and lows of the Southern Hemisphere season and hand out our verdicts on the big four Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. With less than nine months left before the biggest rugby show on earth, 2018 was a critical year for all four countries and much was learnt about the pecking order in International Rugby and what we might expect from these four heavyweights once business gets underway in Japan in September.
We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into 2019. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause in 2018 as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in 2019. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it.
South Africa – 8/10
Some of you may be wondering why we’ve chosen to give South Africa such a high rating when they lost 7 of the 14 Tests they played in 2018, and thus had a winning ratio of only 50%. However, look a bit closer and the picture looks a lot more rosy. First of all it was a clear turnaround from the disastrous years under former Coach Allister Coetzee after the last World Cup. Secondly of those 7 wins 3 were on the road, something the Springboks have struggled to do in recent years. Lastly of those 7 defeats, 3 of them were by less than 3 points. In short, the renaissance that South African rugby experienced in 2018 and the pride that was restored to the jersey, made it fairly easy for us to give them such a high scoring on sheer effort alone. There was an undercurrent of consistency in both team selection and performance that we hadn’t seen for a long time, and as a result we feel they thoroughly deserved the praise we heaped on them last year, along with the recognition they got on the international stage as a force to be reckoned with once more.
South Africa got their 2018 campaign off to an interesting start in an exhibition match in Washington DC, in June against Wales. Although the attendance could have been better, we still counted ourselves fortunate to be part of the enthusiastic crowd that showed up for the match. The first half was a rather dire affair from both sides to say the least, and both teams lacked the necessary precision at times for a match of this calibre. However, by the end of the match it had turned into an exciting contest. A poorly executed kick from behind South Africa’s goal line at the end saw Wales take full advantage and crash over for a simple try to rob South Africa of the lead they had fought so hard to gain in the second half.
South Africa returned home to host England in June for a three Test series. Many key players who regularly ply their trade overseas returned home as well to lend their support to the cause. The result was a Springbok side that positively hummed at Ellis Park in Johannesburg. It was a thrilling Test match, but its opening twenty minutes saw England run in three tries, and the new-found optimism that Coach Rassie Erasmus had given Springbok supporters appeared to evaporate quickly, as fans had a horrible sense of deja vu. However, the next 20 minutes produced some truly stunning rugby from South Africa as they hit back with four tries of their own and headed into halftime with a narrow 29-27 lead. The second half was a tense affair of give and take, but South Africa found their big match temperament and held on for an historic 42-39 victory. The next match in Bloemfontein was a gritty affair, but once again the Springbok pack ground England into submission and allowed South Africa to claim the series. The final Test in Cape Town, saw England find their groove at sea level and in poor conditions they were clearly the better side. However, South Africa had won the series on the back of two solid performances that gave grounds for plenty of optimism heading into the Rugby Championship.
South Africa’s opening fixture in the Rugby Championship against Argentina, built on the success of the England series as they came away with a convincing win over a Pumas outfit that was just coming to terms with life under new Coach Mario Ledesma. In the return fixture in Argentina a week later, that transition process was clearly complete, and the Pumas got the better of a rather disjointed Springbok performance and one which seemed to confirm fears that South Africa may be a side to fear on home soil, but on the road they were continuing to struggle.
South Africa headed to Australia, knowing they needed to shake off the mantra that they were a team that still battled to look convincing away from home. They looked much sharper than they did against Argentina, but still failed to capitalise on some key opportunities and let the lead slip away from their grasp once more. Australia simply took what little chances were on offer more effectively and in a tight tussle the Wallabies got the better of South Africa by 23-18.
Consequently, by the time they reached New Zealand, many had already written them off, especially as the last time they were in New Zealand they experienced their worst ever defeat to the All Blacks by 57-0. Instead what happened was a piece of Springbok history but this time clearly in their favor. As mentioned before in previous posts it was a Test match for the ages and one that brought out all the best qualities of one of International Rugby’s greatest and fiercest rivalries. There were tries galore from both teams and some truly heroic defence from South Africa in the final 15 minutes. They emerged the deserved winners and finally managed to shake off the curse of being unable to win big games on the road. The pride in the jersey on all the players’ faces at the final whistle was perhaps most emphatic in flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit’s tears.
South Africa would then return home and get revenge for their loss to Australia, as some heroic defence once more saw them home, despite a constant Wallaby assault on the South African 22 in the final quarter. Their final match of the Championship saw them take on a New Zealand side clearly out for revenge after the upset in Wellington the previous month. It was another truly epic Test match that hung in the balance for the full eighty minutes. South Africa had once more built up an impressive lead by the final quarter, but New Zealand came charging back into the match and this time showed those devastating finishing skills that they have become synonymous with. South Africa gave as good as they got, but the All Blacks simply went through their paces with just a shade more finesse. It was a thrilling Test match that saw New Zealand sneak it at the death and win by 32-30.
South Africa finished the Rugby Championship with a strong second place, and then headed out on the road for the end of year tour to Europe with a well-founded sense of optimism. First up were England who were clearly out to avenge their series loss in June. Sadly it was a match once more marred by controversy from the officials. South Africa were dominating most aspects of the game but their execution at key moments let them down, even though South Africa would be the only side to score a try, with all of England’s points coming from the boot. A slightly controversial call from referee Angus Gardner on a clumsy tackle from England’s Owen Farrell, meant South Africa were denied a penalty kick that could have swung the match back in their favor. In the end they had to settle for a heartbreaking 1 point loss to England. Nevertheless, despite their dominance of possession for much of the game their issues with execution at times did much more to scupper their chances of a win than one simple 50/50 referee call.
South Africa’s next two outings were much more positive affairs. First up they held their nerve to snatch victory at the death from France. South Africa showed some real composure in the dying minutes of the match, and to a man looked convinced that the win was theirs for the taking which it was, through a well worked team effort resulting in a crucial try at the final whistle. From there it was off to Murrayfield to take on a Scottish side that looked extremely dangerous. Once again it was another dogged and assured performance from the Springboks as they clawed out a second vital win, through some superb attacking rugby, game management from fly half Handre Pollard and some stoic defence. Scotland threw the kitchen sink at them but they held firm.
South Africa’s last match of the year however, did see the inevitable cracks start to appear in a side that had had a long and tumultuous season that had its fair share of highs and lows. Against Wales, South Africa started to look a shadow of the team that had produced that famous victory in Wellington only two months earlier. With some clearly tired bodies on display, the Springboks ultimately bowed out of 2018 quietly but keen to regroup for 2019 and build on the results of a remarkable year. Wales got the better of them and South Africa, although showing the odd spark, never really looked like they would trouble their Welsh hosts to any great degree. While it may have been an anti-climax to what had otherwise been a fantastic year, there were still more than enough positives for South Africa to take away from 2018 as referee Luke Pearce blew the final whistle on the Springboks season.
In short, a season that has had far more highs than lows, especially when compared to the rather dismal state of affairs the Springboks found themselves in heading into 2018. Life under new Coach Rassie Erasmus has produced a renaissance in Springbok rugby and at the same time unearthed some genuine world-class talent. There is still plenty of work to do, but there are few, ourselves included, who would doubt the legitimacy of South Africa’s challenge for Webb Ellis glory come September. South Africa are back, make no mistake and mean business. They have an enviable balance of youth and experience, a devastating but increasingly mobile forward pack, a half back combination that finally works and a truly gifted set of backs. If any of their opponents in Japan fail to take them seriously they will end up paying a heavy price. If South Africa can build on the momentum gained in 2018 there is no reason why it couldn’t be them instead of either New Zealand or Ireland who are hoisting aloft the Webb Ellis trophy on November 2nd.
Player of the year – Faf de Klerk
The pint-sized scrum half was a revelation in the Springbok jersey in 2018. As regular readers know, we are huge fans of the South African number nine and his time playing for English Premiership side Sale Sharks has paid huge dividends. South Africa’s version of a rugby playing Jack Russell is completely fearless, and his ability to keep opposition defences guessing along with a lightning quick delivery was a joy to watch this year. The ability to tackle players more than twice his size and actually to bring them to the ground single-handed is the mark of a very special player, and someone able to punch way above their weight. His obvious enthusiasm for his role is infectious and clearly rubs off on his teammates. In short, expect him to be just as much a part of the South African success story in 2019 as he was in 2018.
Player to watch in 2019 – Aphiwe Dyantyi
South Africa’s try seeking missile had us mesmerised at times in 2018. An exceptionally gifted footballer with some sublime hands and feet skills, Dyantyi featured regularly in press releases about Springbok exploits in 2018 and expect more of the same this year. With his defensive abilities improving with every outing and complimenting his lethal attacking skills in space, this is a player you won’t want to miss both in the Rugby Championship and South Africa’s World Cup campaign in Japan this year.
Match of the year – New Zealand vs South Africa – Wellington – September 15th – New Zealand 34/South Africa 36
We have run out of superlatives, for what we consider to have been THE Test match of 2018. South Africa’s skill and heroics for the full eighty minutes were something to behold. As one of Test Rugby’s greatest rivalries was reborn with a vengeance, this match and South Africa’s performance in it, will be in our video libraries for many years to come.
Well that’s it for 2018. Our focus now shifts wholeheartedly to the Six Nations for the next two months. We’ll have our thoughts on this weekend’s opening round of the classic tournament out by this Thursday night. Stay tuned and once again thanks for all the great support last year!