Just how will history judge the Springbok campaign of 2015?
It is a question that will differ across the country depending on who you talk to – whether it will be characterised by the third place showing at the Rugby World Cup, or the lows of losing against Argentina and Japan in a year that saw the Boks backtrack from their expansive campaign and end up disappointing not just themselves but an entire nation.
There is no doubt that the year would have always been a difficult one, especially given the premium South Africans put on both their performances at the Rugby World Cup and their rivalry with the number one side in the World – the All Blacks.
On both of these counts the Boks were a failure, but the results themselves hardly tell a story of the meltdown of a Rugby World Cup dream and the part that many had played in it.
And on both accounts the Boks have much to say in their defence, but it all gets washed aside by the results column at the end of the day.
Perhaps it is right to start with the result that shocked a nation into anger. A bright, sunny Brighton day on the English seaside saw the biggest shock in World Cup history, and sent the Boks reeling as their relatively easy start to the campaign was rocked from the very beginning.
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It was a result that changed everything. Normally campaigns meander along until the knockout stages, where teams are separated by their grit and ability to win more than talent. But in Brighton after what should have been a relatively easy start to the trip to England, the Boks sat after the game shell-shocked and stunned.
It is hard to quantify the moments after the game to anyone who wasn’t at the ground. Jean de Villiers looked as if he had seen a ghost. Heyneke Meyer looked overcome by emotion. Both struggled to answer the wave of questions from the international media with any certainty.
Outside a host of bodies littered the changeroom, directly opposite the press conference venue. Few words were being spoken. Shock was all that mattered.
Fourie du Preez looked angry, admitting he had warned his teammates but they had not listened. Others spoke of it not being good enough, as if they had lost another game, oblivious to the tide of anger back home.
A return to the game showed just where the Boks had gone wrong. They had adopted an expansive approach and didn’t do their basics. Kicks were turned down at posts, while their weapon of the driving maul was hardly used.
They struggled with the chop tackle of the Japanese and looked rusty, way too rusty for what they encountered. Add to this the host of Boks coming back from injury and it was a recipe for disaster.
But it was after the dust settled that the stories started to emerge. It became more apparent that from the fifth minute in the game, captain De Villiers and vice-captain Victor Matfield had both ignored orders from the coaching box.
Heated team meetings – which one Bok described as possibly the toughest in his career – followed and the anger filtered into their next base in Birmingham. For those who have followed the team around for a while now, Meyer looked like a zombie.
A lack of sleep and the mounting pressure, the harassed coach turned to the only way he saw as getting the Boks to the semis – the direct low-risk approach.
The irony is that the players Meyer had stuck with through criticism by the public at large for being too old were the same players who had taken decisions on the field that would forever be held against the coach.
Still, the pressure mounted and Meyer folded. And while there will be pointing fingers at the Boks’ approach in the rest of the Rugby World Cup it is at least worth remembering that the Boks were on the right track despite losses against Australia and New Zealand in the Rugby Championship.
There was a lot of sympathy for the Boks when they lost both games at the death with an inexperienced bench and two different captains, especially as they seemed to be adopting a more balanced expansive approach against both. And in both games crucial decisions cost them the match – Australia getting the benefit of a TMO decision on full time and Richie McCaw’s debatable try at Ellis Park swinging both scorelines away from the Boks.
But that sympathy had disappeared after the Boks’ first loss to Argentina in Durban. And while there was much gnashing of teeth over the result, subsequently Argentina have shown themselves to be an exceptionally well-coached side that will beat the bigger sides in future on a more regular basis.
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This time however, the Boks looked flat. And for a team that prides itself on exceptional groundwork and preparation, they had underestimated the impact of their intensive fitness sessions off the field.
As with Japan, they had underestimated the opposition, they had miscalculated their own strength and deviated from their own game plan. And while on previous occasions they had been able to find a get-out-of-jail-free card, their luck ran out both in Durban and Brighton.
The week in Birmingham ahead of the Samoan game was a testing one, and it determined the Boks’ path forward. They bounced back with a clinical performance, followed by another against Scotland. On both occasions though, it still felt uneasy, unimpressive. It felt as if the Boks were doing enough to win, and hadn’t shaken off the hangover of Brighton for some time.
The direct approach almost cost them against an improved Welsh side. It took a moment of brilliance from Fourie du Preez – whose uncompromising and direct approach fitted perfectly for the job of interim captain – diving in the corner to save the Boks from a repeat of their 2011 quarterfinal exit.
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In the end the approach was only going to take them so far, and while the rain helped them run the All Blacks close – losing by two points against a team that was dominant over the past four years – the Boks bowed out showing tenacity and grit.
Meyer may have been right that they could have won, but while this is so, they were never the better side on the day. Their inability to do as they did at Ellis Park – perhaps partly because of the rain – and find the holes in the All Black defence, to probe and dart, to show they could match their oldest rivals simply wasn’t there.
It was as if Meyer had lost the heart of his approach. As if he had closed up after the Japan shock and never recovered.
The Boks did sweep aside their rivals en route to the semis but they never quite won back the belief – not from their fans, nor, it seemed, from within the side.
The relationships that Meyer had fostered and backed against all advice had backfired on him, and they never quite recovered. The potential had never quite been reached, despite the grit and determination of the players throughout the tournament.
Meyer had said at the beginning of his tenure that the only rugby he saw was winning rugby. In a country obsessed not only with results but increasingly with its own inability to match its greatest rival, he perhaps failed to take stock that this wasn’t enough. Despite the team’s own shortcomings, he backed the old brigade, and in one afternoon in Brighton they took all the potential away.
From there the side continued forward, but never with the same belief and momentum. And when it came to facing the All Blacks they needed more than just their survival mode and were found wanting.
It is true that Meyer made many mistakes along the way, with the disappointment of the entire campaign being the refusal to continue along the path the team were progressing on for the past few years.
The lack of ambition and the fear of losing ultimately caused the Boks’ downfall, no matter how hard they worked. It isn’t a surprise the Bok coach walked away from the job in the end, given the results, the pressure and the abuse he faced. And those who are happy for a change of coach will always hold the Brighton match against Meyer.
2015 comes to an end not too soon for a Springbok rugby fan. Third place in the World Cup would have been acceptable – as defence coach John McFarland put it – if it wasn’t for that afternoon in Brighton. All other sins may have been forgiven.
But they weren’t. And the biggest upset in World Cup history will continue to haunt Bok rugby for a long time to come.
Story by Supersport