Durban - The Springboks ended 2021 as the number one-ranked team in the world – the same position they were in at the beginning of an extremely difficult season of rugby – and what they did over the past five months to achieve that is nothing short of extraordinary.
Having been locked down for 20 months, they went from a standing start to play 13 Tests in 20 weeks, winning eight and losing five, with three of the defeats coming from heartbreaking, lastgasp penalties.
In those games, the Boks were leading in the 78th minute, only to lose at the death for single-point defeats.
If the Boks had resumed in 2020 after their World Cup victory instead of going into cold storage for so long, they would have been a dozen Test matches down the line come 2021.
All of the Boks’ adversaries in this year played far more rugby — the Six Nations and Autumn Series were played in the northern hemisphere while a Rugby Championship was held without the Boks.
The Boks had little choice but to keep it simple and stick to their conservative guns, especially in the series against the British & Irish Lions. The criticism of their playing style was unfair given they had just one match – against Georgia – to warm up before the series after not having played since November 2019.
Overall, the Boks have done themselves and their country extremely proud and they will enter 2022 with confidence and a hunger to grow their game.
The Boks also came in for stick for not introducing fresh talent but, to be fair, they were on an emergency footing from June when they convened in Bloemfontein for the first time since the World Cup final in Yokohama, so it was hardly the time for experimentation.
And Jacques Nienaber’s tried-and tested players mostly did not fail him and a number of individuals have finished the year with reputations considerably enhanced.
At Twickenham in the Boks’ final Test of the year, there were colossal performances by Siya Kolisi, Eben Etzebeth, Duane Vermeulen, Malcolm Marx, Makazole Mpimpi, Damien de Allende and Lukhanyo Am, with all of them crowning superb seasons for South Africa.
Kolisi’s growth as a player and captain adds a new chapter to his fairytale story, notably because of how he responded to the challenge of what promised to be a very tough year for the Boks.
Kolisi had gone into the international season in July with valid questions over his form after he had been decidedly rusty for the Stormers in only a handful of games late last year – he did have injury problems – and when he joined the Sharks in the new year he needed to undergo a conditioning programme.
Some felt he wasn’t ready for the first Test against the Lions but by the end of the series he had been one of the Boks’ best players, and that form continued for the rest of the season.
We should also remember that the Boks played almost all of the year without one of their best players, Pieter Steph du Toit, after the 2019 World Player of the Year was injured against the Lions.
In June next year, Wales arrive for a three-Test series and the Boks can begin some genuine evolution as the rugby season normalises and they can do it from a position of strength as the best rugby team in the world.