Here’s a New Year’s thought for the Boks: every cloud has a silver lining
It’s always darkest just before the dawn, as the old saying goes.
South African rugby hopes that is the case because 2016 was a nightmare for the Springboks under new coach Allister Coetzee.
The Boks lost eight of their 12 Tests‚ a record number of losses in a calendar year‚ worse than the seven defeats of 2006 and 1965.
They also failed to win away from home for the first time in 14 seasons.
The Boks started the year ranked three in the world and ended it sixth. Along the way they suffered a record loss to the All Blacks‚ a first home loss against Ireland‚ a first away defeat against the Pumas and a winless November northern hemisphere tour for the first time since 2002.
The Bok defence was the worst it had been in the professional era‚ conceding an average of 2.9 tries per game.
That was down to a host of problems from utilising three defence coaches in six months‚ to lack of intensity by the players.
Coetzee tried to use these issues as excuses‚ but they only served to highlight how he had failed to plan properly and also to address and rectify shortcomings as they arose.
Players also need to be accountable for the Boks’ decline because their conditioning was poor.
Which is something that they can control.
Before the November tour only two out of 30 players passed fitness protocols when they first gathered.
By the end of the season‚ Coetzee’s job was on the line‚ even though he still has three years to run on his contract.
A full review of his post was interrupted by the holidays and will continue in January.
Coetzee was appointed only on April 11‚ which was extremely late and gave him just two months to prepare for his first assignment‚ which was a three-Test home series against Ireland.
It was a sign of things to come when the Boks lost the first Test at Newlands 26-20.
It was the first time SA lost to Ireland at home and more gallingly‚ Ireland played most of the match with 14 men after SA-born flank CJ Stander was red-carded for a clumsy but not malicious charge on Bok flyhalf Pat Lambie that left the pivot prone and concussed.
Lambie didn’t play again for three months.
Coetzee ignored the claims of many Lions players‚ who were all brimming with confidence after reaching the Super Rugby play-offs in style‚ instead opting for older players such as wings Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen in his initial selections.
The second Test at Ellis Park saw the Boks stage a monumental second half fightback to win 32-26 after being rocked by an Irish first half onslaught that saw the tourists lead 19-3 at the break.
Four tries – from debutant wing Ruan Combrinck‚ No 8 Warren Whiteley‚ lock Pieter-Steph Du Toit and centre Damian de Allende — spared the Boks’ blushes and sent the series to a decider in Port Elizabeth.
In the end the Boks hung on for a 19-13 win in PE to clinch the series 2-1‚ which was the highlight of their year. It went downhill from then on.
The Rugby Championship was a calamitous campaign for the Boks that saw them win just two of six games.
The All Blacks won all their matches and became the first team in the history of the tournament to score bonus point tries in every contest to earn a maximum 30 log points.
The gap between the All Blacks and the rest was cavernous and it widened as the tournament progressed.
The opening match saw the Boks escape with a 30-23 win over Argentina in Nelspruit with another late rally.
The Pumas led by 10 points with nine minutes to play‚ but the Boks capitalised on Argentinean mistakes to score two late tries through fullback Johan Goosen and a last minute effort by Whiteley to win.
There was no such escaping in Buenos Aires the following week as the Pumas beat the Boks on home soil for the first time with a 26-24 win.
From there it was on to Australasia for dates against the Wallabies and the All Blacks and predictably‚ the tour didn’t go well.
The Wallabies‚ who were on a six-match losing streak at the time they played the Boks‚ won a scrappy affair in Brisbane by 23-17 to end their rut.
The All Blacks‚ in rampant form and close to breaking the record of consecutive victories by a tier one nation‚ were not in a charitable mod in Christchurch the following week‚ thumping the Boks 41-13.
At halftime there was a glimmer of hope for the Boks as they trailed 15-10‚ but the world champions ruthlessly snuffed out that expectancy by running in a further four tries to add to their two first half touchdowns to win at a canter.
Back in SA the pressure on Coetzee was mounting.
A sterile 18-10 win over the Wallabies at Loftus‚ in which flyhalf Morne Steyn kicked all the points via four penalties and two drop-goals‚ eased the tension even though the performance was poor.
The following week the parlous state of Bok rugby was made glaringly obvious in Durban when the All Blacks ran rampant against a Bok team bereft of ideas and‚ most gallingly‚ passion.
NZ secured a record 57-15 win over the Boks‚ running in seven second half tries‚ and nine in the match‚ to secure an historic win.
Afterwards Coetzee spoke of "embarrassment" and the performance "not being good enough". It was a refrain that would become painfully well worn during the November tour to Britain and Italy.
A match against a makeshift Barbarians team ended 31-31 thanks to two late Bok tries from Francois Venter and Rohan Janse van Rensburg.
Losing to England for the first time in a decade was a painfully predictable outcome for the Boks as Eddie Jones’ team racked up its 10th win of the season by taking the match 37-21.
By the end of the year Jones’ England had won 13 matches under his leadership with largely the same group of players that had been eliminated from the 2015 World Cup at the group stage.
It was another reminder of what a world-class coach can achieve.
The season was already a mess by the time the team arrived Florence to face Italy. And it just got worse.
The Azzuri stunned the Boks with a late rally to win 20-18‚ recording their first win over a Tri-Nations team.
Coetzee evaded a blunt question of whether he would resign by saying it was for his bosses to decide.
The tour limped into Cardiff for a meeting with Wales.
It was an unprecedented situation when Wales went into the match as overwhelming favourites.
The Boks had fallen so far that anything other than a Welsh victory‚ even though they’d only beaten SA twice in 31 previous encounters over 110 years‚ would be seen as an upset.
There was to be no upset as Coetzee handed first caps to centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg‚ wing Jamba Ulengo and flanks Uzair Cassiem and Jean-Luc du Preez in an effort to ‘build for the future’ as he spun it.
Wales won 27-13 against one of the meekest of performances in Bok history.
It had Welsh supporters feeling sorry for how far Bok rugby standards had fallen‚ a mood that summed up how desperate Springbok rugby was.
Away from the field‚ SA Rugby elected a new president in Mark Alexander‚ who has already demonstrated the willingness to tackle the problems rugby faces head.
The major achievement of his first months in charge was to cajole the SA Rugby general council to vote for a change in constitution that effectively took its decision-making powers away.
Major policy‚ operational and commercial decisions will now be made by a sleeker executive council that bypasses meddling from self-serving provincial unions.
The hopeful outcome is that more energy and money can be focused rectifying the Springboks.