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OPINION: 'Look at the scoreboard'

In a review of 2023, it would be easy to get stuck on the World Cup – the one event that dominated the landscape.

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South Africa’s fourth World Cup win is indeed worthy of a top billing.

However, so much happened in the year – the Sevens (now SVNS), Currie Cup, Premiership, United Rugby Championship, Challenge Cup, Champions Cup, Six Nations and Rugby Championship.

I’ll tackle the competitions one at a time, but will naturally reserve the bulk of my review for the global showpiece in France.

Sevens

The 2022–23 Sevens World Series, the 24th season of this global event, also doubled as a qualifier for the 2024 Olympic Games – with the top four countries, excluding hosts France, qualifying automatically.

New Zealand claimed their 14th series title, winning five of the 11 tournaments.

However, the headline news was the abject failure of South Africa under new coach Sandile Ngcobo. They finished a pitiful seventh and at the time of the writing of this article, have not yet qualified for the Olympics. Their last chance is in Monaco in June – on the eve of the Olympics.

Currie Cup

It was the 85th edition of South Africa’s premier domestic competition and was marked by the return of the Northern Free State outfit, the Griffons.

With the URC overlapping with the Currie Cup, teams like the Sharks, Western Province, Bulls and Lions had their resources stretched.

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It saw the Cheetahs, who claimed their seventh Currie Cup title, beating the Pumas 25-17 in an enthralling Final in front of 33,804 spectators.

The headline act was the performance of 39-year-old Springbok Ruan Pienaar, who featured at both scrumhalf and flyhalf, but had his most influential performances in the No.10 jersey.

Premiership

On May 27, in front of 61,875 spectators at Twickenham, Saracens beat Sale Sharks 35-25.

However, the tournament was overshadowed by the financial troubles of several English clubs that resulted in the Premiership being reduced to just 10 teams.

Worcester Warriors were suspended from all tournaments in September and relegated from the Premiership, after the club was placed into administration. All player and staff contracts were terminated. In October Wasps followed the same route, due to their financial troubles.

United Rugby Championship

Amidst the ballyhoo of the Stormers hosting back-to-back Finals after another impressive season, there was the key roles played by two World Cup-winning Springboks in Munster’s upset (19-14) win in the Cape Town Final.

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Munster came back from being a lowly 14th on the standings – after losing five of their seven matches in the opening half of the season – booked their play-off place with an away win against the Stormers.

The lock pairing of Jean Kleyn and RG Snyman played a significant role in the Round 17 (on April 15) win over the Stormers, as they did in the Final.

Kleyn was promptly called up to the Springbok squad – four years after he played for Ireland in the 2019 World Cup. It caused a cyclopean outcry in Ireland (and elsewhere).

Bok coach Jacques Nienaber later revealed that they initially voted against the ruling that allowed Tier One country hopping, but once they lost that skirmish, they decided to use it to their advantage.

As for the Final, flank John Hodnett scored the match-winning try in a 19-14 Munster win five minutes from time – leaving the Cape Town stadium in a rather deflated mood.

However, it would be amiss of me not to reflect on the amazing come-from-behind achievement by the Limerick-based team, which added the URC title to a host of other honours – including four two European Cup wins, Celtic League & Cup titles and two British & Irish Cup triumphs.

Challenge Cup

Toulon added the Challenge Cup to their already impressive array of titles – including three European Cups and four Top 14 titles – when they beat Glasgow Warriors 43-19 in the Dublin Final.

Among the top performers for the galácticos team in the final included Sergio Parisse, Jiuta Wainiqolo, Waisea Nayacalevu and Ihaia West.

Not that the Warriors’ South African connection is any less significant. Starting with Springbok Franco Smith as coach, they list Scotland-qualified Allan Dell, Oliver Kebble, Nathan McBeth, JP du Preez, Sintu Manjezi, Henco Venter, Henco Venter and Kyle Steyn among those who first made their mark in South Africa before moving Scotland.

The other significant sideshow is the two South African teams – the Lions and Cheetahs, the latter getting a special invite.

The Lions did admirably – certainly better than in the URC – in their first season in Europe, reaching the quarterfinal, where they lost 21-31 to Franco Smith’s Warriors in Glasgow.

The Cheetahs, playing all their games away (as part of the agreement of their invite), produced an admirable performance in losing 21-36 to eventual champions Toulon at Stade Mayol.

Champions Cup

If their debut on Europe’s main stage was an eye-opener for the South African teams, it also did nothing to remove that ‘chokers’ tag from Irish giants Leinster – who went through unbeaten only to lose (26-27) in the Final to Stade Rochelais for the second year running.

The match referee in the Dublin grand finale was Jaco Peyper, the first South African to referee the European showpiece Final.

For the first time, both finalists from a Champions Cup Final returned to the following year’s Final. La Rochelle became the third team after Toulouse (2003-05) and Toulon (2013-15) to appear in three successive finals, while Leinster, for the second year, attempted to match Toulouse’s outright record of five European Champions Cups.

The South African interest in the Final centred on two wings – Dillyn Leyds and Raymond Rhule. Neither did enough to secure World Cup selection, despite some impressive form throughout the season.

The Bulls were the most disappointing of the South African teams, Director of Rugby Jake White putting all his eggs in the URC basket and ending up with those eggs on his face in both competitions – losing 9-33 to Stade Toulousain at Stade Ernest-Wallon.

The Sharks also encountered a red-hot Toulouse in the quarterfinals and went down 20-54, in a much more admirable performance than their Pretoria-based compatriots.

The Stormers also struggled to find some winning form on the road, losing 17-42 to Exeter Chiefs (the 2020 champions) in the quarterfinal.

The teams all promised to ‘learn’ from their mistakes, but the Sharks were relegated to the Challenge Cup because they did not finish high enough in the URC – something that seems to be their destiny again, based on their current URC results.

Six Nations

Ireland was, by all accounts, the form team going into the World Cup.

They won the Six Nations Grand Slam by dispatching allcomers – including World Cup hosts France.

It was Ireland’s 15th Six Nations triumph, along with a 13th Triple Crown and a fourth Grand Slam.

In beating England in their final game on March 18, Ireland completed a full set of consecutive victories over all the other tier-one international sides and saw them enjoy an uninterrupted 15 months as the World’s top-ranked team.

However, the question of the ‘chokers’ tag remained – the men from the Emerald Isle having never progressed past the World Cup quarterfinals.

Rugby Championship

The tournament, dominated by yet again New Zealand, saw the All Blacks win their 20th title in this abbreviated version.

South Africa used the tournament as ‘preparation’ for the World Cup and the team that played and lost (20-35) to the All Blacks in Auckland on July 15 showed a remarkable resemblance to the side that beat the same All Blacks in the World Cup Final in Paris three months later.

The players who started at Mount Smart Stadium and did not feature in Paris were injured stars Lukhanyo Am and Lood de Jager, while Makazole Mapimpi became the victim of the seven-one bench split in Paris.

Willie le Roux (playing off the bench), Damian Willemse (moved from flyhalf to fullback), Jasper Wiese (playing off the bench), Franco Mostert (starting at lock after playing on the flank in Auckland) and Kwagga Smith (playing off the bench) fulfilled different roles in Paris.

Argentina showed glimpses of promise in the Rugby Championship and Australia gave a clear indication of the World Cup chaos that was about to come under Eddie Jones’ unrefined approach – which resulted in a pool stage exit at the World Cup and Jones’ axing.

(Continue below …)

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World Cup

I will pause here for a bit longer, as it was #THE event of the year and a historic occasion.

To all those still taking pot-shots at the Springboks, I have just one message: ‘Look at the scoreboard’.

South Africa’s four World Cups in eight attempts (50 percent success rate) far surpasses New Zealand’s three wins in 10 attempts (30 percent), Australia’s two from 10 (20 percent) and England’s one from 10 (10 percent).

I have noticed attempts to equate the New Zealand women’s team’s dominance of the game to the Springboks’ four titles.

Yes, the Black Ferns have won six from nine tournaments, a 66 percent success rate.

However, to compare that to the Springboks’ performance is like suggesting New Zealand is a better rugby country because they performed better than Bafana Bafana at the soccer World Cup. In all honesty, other than England (with two titles) and the United States (one title) no other countries have the infrastructure to challenge New Zealand in the women’s arena.

Now that I have that off my chest, let’s focus on the real tournament – the #OneThatMatters!

For the record, the Springboks have #NEVER lost in a World Cup Final – including twice beating the All Blacks 15-12 (1995) and 12-11 (2023).

Pool A was dominated by France, who headed into their quarterfinal face-off with South Africa as favourites. Their 27-13 win over New Zealand in an epic tournament opener set the stage for what was to be one of the most dramatic and entertaining global showpieces ever.

France cruised through the rest of the pool stages and may well have been a touch undercooked going into the play-offs, while New Zealand built up a head of steam with runaway wins over 15 Namibia (71–3), Italy (96–17) and Uruguay (73–0).

Pool B was labelled the ‘pool of death’, but played a massive role in preparing the Springboks for the play-offs.

The very astute paid of Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus (what a privilege to see them operate first-hand) targeted the Scotland game – knowing that would set them up nicely.

The hard-earned 18–3 win over Scotland at Stade de Marseille and the 76–0 thumping of Romania at Stade de Bordeaux meant a loss (8–13) to Ireland at Stade de France was not a train smash.

Finishing first or second in the pool was irrelevant. It was always going to be France or New Zealand in the quarterfinals and the 49–18 triumph over Tonga in Marseille was just to confirm the top-two pool finish.

In contrast, Ireland continued to make statements about their No.1 world ranking – with wins over Romania (82–8 in Bordeaux), Tonga (59–16 in Nantes), South Africa (13-8 in Paris) and Scotland (36–14 in Paris) ensure they went into the play-offs as one of two teams fancied by bookmakers.

Pool C was by far the most entertaining and enjoyable to watch for me.

Wales lived up to their top billing (in the pool), by beating Fiji (32–26 in Bordeaux), Portugal (28–8 in Nice), thumping Australia (40–6 in Lyon) and Georgia (43–19 in Nantes).

It is below that where the fun started.

Fiji beat Australia (22-15 in Saint-Étienne) and then lost to Portugal (23-24 in Toulouse) in the final round. The latter was my match of the tournament.

Australia’s losing run – a win over Georgia (35–15), followed by losses to Fiji (15–22 in Saint-Étienne) and Wales (6-40 in Lyon) had already reduced them to ‘also-rans’ status.

Perhaps that is why Fiji were caught cold against Portugal, as they had already secured second place in the pool.

Pool D also had its entertainment value, but mostly because of the uncertainty about what would happen below a pool-dominating England.

Argentina’s worst performance was their opening-round loss (10-27) to England in Marseille.

Los Pumas then dispatched Samoa (19–10 in Saint-Étienne), Chile (59–5 in Nantes) and Japan (39-27 in Nantes).

England, after dispatching Argentina, cruised past Japan (34–12 in Nice), Chile (71–0 in Villeneuve-d’Ascq) and edged Samoa (18–17 in Villeneuve-d’Ascq).

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Play-offs

It was at the quarterfinal stage where the #REAL drama started.

The quarterfinals were perhaps the most dramatic in the history of the World Cup – certainly to my recollection.

A vastly improved Argentina upstaged Wales (29-17), who came through a very soft pool and were never as convincing as some of their media suggested.

England struggled to dispatch a willing, but outclassed Fiji 30-24 in the other match on the easy side of the draw – also played in Marseille, perhaps an indication that the organisers wanted the best games in their national stadium in Paris.

The tough side of the draw – both played at Stade de France in Saint-Denis, the commune in the northern suburbs of Paris – saw Ireland fall foul of their World Cup curse and lose 24-28 to a now very impressive New Zealand.

New Zealand saw off a late siege, after an epic contest – as Ireland suffered an eighth World Cup quarterfinal exit.

More drama was to follow a night later at the same venue, as defending champions South Africa booked a semifinal face-off against England after beating hosts France 29-28 in an epic struggle.

The Springboks twice came from behind to overcome the hosts in a pulsating encounter, with the Boks’ kicking game in particular causing problems for the French – as first Kurt-Lee Arendse sprinted to the corner before Damian de Allende plunged over.

The moment (play) of the match – perhaps even the tournament – came midway through the first half. Cheslin Kolbe charged down the conversion from Thomas Ramos – a vital play in a one-point win, which is stirring up debate to this day.

Eben Etzebeth’s try with 14 minutes left, which replacement Handre Pollard converted and added a penalty, proved decisive – despite a late reply from Ramos.

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The first semifinal was a bit of an anticlimax – New Zealand produced a seven-try demolition of Argentina (44-6), displaying the form ensured they would go into the Final as favourites.

The real drama was reserved for the Sunday semifinal.

In a very wet Paris, England produced a near-perfect tactical performance against the South African team that had now become accustomed to ‘come from behind’ and steal it at the death.

South Africa edged England 16-15 in a gripping encounter in which the reigning champions were never in front until a long-range penalty from replacement Handre Pollard with just two minutes left on the clock.

Under unrelenting rain, scrumhalf Alex Mitchell and flyhalf Owen Farrell went to the air again and again for England, whose defence and breakdown work were ferocious as the Springboks had few answers.

Four Farrell first-half penalties to one from Manie Libbok and one from Pollard – who replaced Libbok after just 30 minutes – put England 12-6 up at half-time lead, which Farrell extended to 15-6 with a thumping drop-goal.

Then, with Pollard pulling the string to perfection, the Boks came charging back. The ‘bomb squad’ exploded in Stade de France – replacement lock RG Snyman crashed over after 69 minutes and Pollard’s conversion brought them to within two points. But another scrum penalty after 78 minutes – with Ox Nche at his most explosive best – gave Pollard the chance to break England’s hearts and send South Africa into their fourth Final.

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The third-place play-off – with England beating Argentina 26-23 – was a damp squib. It is truly the game no one wants to play in.

But we had the Final, another dramatic face-off between arch-rivals South Africa and New Zealand.

The final score, 12-11 to the Springboks, was befitting of a Final of this nature.

It had it all, even in a drenched Stade de France – the All Blacks threatening on attack, the Boks tackling like demons and the flyhalf kicking South Africa to a record fourth World Cup victory.

Four Handre Pollard penalties to two from Richie Mo’unga gave the Springboks a 12-6 lead after a first half in which All Blacks flank Shannon Frizell was sin-binned for an incident in which Mbongeni Mbonambi was forced off injured. Then New Zealand captain Sam Cane became the first player to be sent off in a Final for a high tackle on Jesse Kriel.

Siya Kolisi and Kurt-Lee Arendse both went close for South Africa before Kolisi was yellow-carded as the All Blacks fought back. Aaron Smith was denied a try for an earlier knock-on, before Beauden Barrett touched down to bring them to within a point.

There was late drama as Cheslin Kolbe was sin-binned for a deliberate knock-on and Jordie Barrett missed a long-range penalty that might have won it for New Zealand, as the Springboks maintained their perfect record in Finals – adding to their crowns in 1995, 2007 and 2019.

Here I have to add the question I posed to Bok coach Jacques Nienaber after the England semifinal: ‘Does the Bok team doctor have some extra heart tablets? They are in short supply in Paris tonight.’

After some assistance from his captain, Kolisi, Nienaber giggled and answered in the affirmative.

Three one-point wins in the play-offs, the toughest pool – with two teams ranked in the top five at the start of the tournament – in Pool B and the Springboks still endured.

It was truly a privilege and a blessing to have witnessed it live and engaged with two of the most astute people in charge of the Springboks – Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus.

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My Awards

Player of the Year

Eben Etzebeth was one of the most consistent players throughout the year, along with Ardie Savea.

My top three
1. Eben Etzebeth
2. Ardie Savea
3. Siya Kolisi

Player of the Final

1. Pieter-Steph du Toit
2. Handre Pollard
3. Ardie Savea

Play of the World Cup

1. Cheslin Kolbe’s conversion charge down against France
2. Rodrigo Marta’s 79th-minute try that set up Portugal’s win over Fiji
3. Handre Pollard’s 78th-minute match-winning penalty against England

The most impactful player at the World Cup

1. Handre Pollard
2. Franco Mostert
3. Ardie Savea

Biggest loss

1. Malcolm Marx
2. Romain Ntamack
3. Jack van Poortvliet

Most improved

1. Jesse Kriel
2. Mark Telea
3. Kwagga Smith

Most undervalued:

1. Franco Mostert
2. RG Snyman
3. Jasper Wiese

Best utility:

1. Deon Fourie
2. Marco van Staden
3. Beauden Barrett

@king365ed
@rugby365com

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