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2004 Springbok Review
(Written by Lucas in 2004 for Amabokke)

In a country where rugby is not only part of life but for many supporters a way of life the 2004 rugby year will be remembered as the great Springbok restoration. Looking back, not even Nostradamus could have predicted the Cinderella like story of Springbok rugby’s resurgence on the world scene given the dire state of affairs when the second leap year of the century broke.

A review of a season before its final climatic end is in itself a perilous affair especially after a defeat against Ireland put paid to the hopes of a Grand Slam end of year tour. There have been however, plenty of accomplishments from the class of 2004 to please and excite their loyal supporters.

The 2004 rugby year began with a sour taste in the mouth after a disastrous World Cup campaign and catastrophic events off the field left little doubt that Springbok rugby was in deep trouble. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact juncture or the specific catalyst that triggered Springbok revival however the following factors in isolation and together contributed to the cause;

q The end of an era in administration when Rian Oberholzer and Silas Nkanunu resigned from their positions.
q Brian van Rooyen’s emergence as the new, powerful president of SA rugby.
q Rudolf Straeuli’s resignation.
q Super 12 victories in Australasia and a South African semi finalist.
q A new selection panel with Andre Markgraaff as convener.
q The appointment of Jake White as national coach.

Probably the most significant of these factors was the promotion of Jake White, national age group coach to the senior position after a laborious and sometime controversial process. The new coach’s attributes were clear; good management skills, an intimate knowledge of SA’s young players and a commitment to transformation all seen as vital characteristics for a Springbok coach.

One of the biggest challenges faced by Jake was to restore player’s confidence and belief that they could compete against the self same Super 12 players they opposed year in and out but on an international level. The last trophy won by any South African side was the new coach’s u21 side that lifted a world crown but on senior level, the 1998 Tri Nations and one world cup was all to show after 12 years in the international arena.

The selection panel picked mostly on form and promise to bring together an exciting squad of fresh new faces and some experienced old campaigners in Os Du Randt and Percy Montgommery. The captain, John Smit was also appointed long before the first test of the year suggesting that there was a bit more organization and planning at work.

The Springboks first assignment for the international season was a tough two test series against the Triple Crown winning Ireland team who only lost to France in the Six Nations and who beat England on the World Champions own patch, Twickenham - becoming the first team to do so this century. Few supporters were convinced that the Springboks would stand a chance and after two tough matches, won in convincing style a newfound belief arose in the power of the Springboks and Jake White as coach. Wales was swept away unceremoniously and the Springboks gained enough faith in their game plan, defensive pattern and attacking prowess. The acid test remained the Tri Nations.

The annual competition between the games southern hemisphere superpowers has been reduced to a one-on-one between Australia and New Zealand as successive Springbok sides failed to impress on Australasian superiority. Victory over the All Blacks last came in 2000 at home and was it not for the Australian hoodoo in South Africa victories would have been very scarce indeed. This year the Springboks traveled first to play successive tests in Christchurch and Perth preceded by a historic first test against the Pacific Islanders.

After a hard but encouraging victory over the combination team from the islands, the All Blacks was a different matter altogether. The Springboks played with a lot of confidence and some guile to pressurize a strangely out of sorts All Black side struggling with a new coach and his playing principles. In a brilliant game, the Springboks surprised all and sundry by losing in the final seconds of a pulsating test match when Doug Howlett scored a try that broke a million hearts. However supporters were heartened by one of the best Springbok displays on foreign soil in a long long time. The team was clearly learning and taking a few lessons at heart in their growth to being a great side.

The Australians in Perth proved once and for all that any home ground advantage cannot be ignored and in a high scoring test match beat the Springboks by 4 points. Yet another degree was added to the learning curve of a young and inexperienced team. The home leg awaited and Springbok supporters were definitely not despondent after two very encouraging displays from a gutsy team.

Ellis Park, 14 August will be remembered for a long time by all supporters fortunate enough to witness a brilliant Springbok victory to match any other of the modern era at the bastion of Springbok rugby. In a magnificent display of running rugby, the Springboks annihilated the old foe and Marius Joubert scored a memorable hat trick. All of a sudden the impossible hankered - Tri Nations glory for a young team and coach after being written off by the whole rugby world barely 6 months earlier.

In the way stood Eddie Jones’ world cup finalists and a fine attacking combination of power pace and experience for the big occasion. Durban proved to be yet another disappointment for a team historically weak in South Africa. The Springboks capitalized on some uncharacteristic Aussie mistakes and Victor Matfield continued his run of scoring against the Australians. In a tense affair, the Springboks outlasted George Gregan’s men and in a blur of celebration John Smit accepted the Tri Nations crown and hoisted it high in the humid Durban air.

The Springboks completed a remarkable comeback to win a competition they have only succeeded in winning once in the 9 years of competing. The circumstances preceding the victory made it even a more special event and transformed the country’s rugby and expectations in a journey unforgotten by everybody that was part of it.

The Springboks are back and with a very good season and an all-important trophy there is a healthy respect for the green-and-gold. The team as witnessed in Europe have a lot to learn and mistakes will be made along the way however the coach need to follow the courage of his conviction and supporters trust in the results and the ability of their team.

A great year it was when measured to the standards of the last 5 years and with renewed confidence and planning, Springbok rugby can capitalize on the upward curve. The challenge remains to continue their great efforts and mould a great, winning team for the next world cup. It is more than possible!