RWC 2007 should have been a start‚ not high point‚ for a great Bok squad
When Springbok coach Jake White informed his squad who the team for the Rugby World Cup 2007 final would be‚ he didn’t just read out the names‚ but also said something special about each player and why he was chosen.
They were simple‚ but powerful messages: “John Smit‚ the most capped captain in Bok history”‚ and‚ “Percy Montgomery‚ most capped player in Bok history and leading all-time points scorer”.
White did this for each man and then asked the players to look at the men around them‚ and appreciate what a special and exceptional group they were.
And what a squad it was that won that final‚ the 10-year anniversary of which is marked on Friday.
At the time‚ the 668 caps they collectively had going into the final was the most in Springbok history.
Scrumhalf Fourie du Preez‚ centres Jaque Fourie and Frans Steyn‚ locks Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha‚ prop Os du Randt‚ hooker John Smit‚ flanks Juan Smith and Schalk Burger and wings Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen would have made a world XV squad at the time.
At the Stade de France in Paris’s working class St Denis suburb‚ the Boks duly beat England 15-6 to win the Webb Ellis trophy for a second time. It was a game of grim effectiveness from the Boks as they smothered England with their defence‚ discipline and power.
The Boks only conceded five penalties in the match‚ while the lineout‚ with Matfield in the vanguard‚ stole seven England balls.
The Boks played pragmatic‚ territory-based rugby that day despite being the tournament’s second leading try-scorers going into the final with 33 in their previous six matches. It showed they were adaptable.
Montgomery kicked four penalties despite suffering a torn meniscus and strained knee ligaments early in the game. He landed two of his penalties after the injury and was ruled out for 10 weeks following the final.
Frans Steyn‚ only 19 at the time‚ landed a penalty from 48 metres on the hour-mark to take the Boks two scores clear of England‚ who never narrowed the gap.
“Some people say it wasn’t the most exciting brand of rugby in the world‚ but the execution was world-class‚” John Smit told the October edition of SA Rugby Magazine.
“Our defence forced the opposition to make mistakes. We looked to create turnovers. We were like a python‚ squeezing the life out of opposition teams.”
What should have been the start of an era of dominance like we have seen from the All Blacks for the past eight years‚ ended up being the high-point for the Boks.
White had made enemies in his bid to make the South Africa world champions but he delivered on a promise he had made to administrators‚ the players and the public – the Boks would win the World Cup.
Of that squad‚ only prop Os du Randt and Montgomery as well as fringe veterans lock Albert van den Berg‚ wing Ashwin Willemse and flank Bob Skinstad were unlikely to play on to the next World Cup.
The other 25 players as well as the injured centre Jean de Villiers‚ prop BJ Botha and No 8 Pierre Spies would be around for at least four more years.
It was a moment in time that needed to be seized. The Boks should have become the dominant team in the game‚ but apart from a brief period in 2009‚ they have not been at No.1 again.
“The biggest trick we missed was not keeping continuity after the World Cup‚” White said from Japan this week‚ where he is coaching club team Toyota.
“If there was one thing my period as Bok coach proved‚ it was that continuity was essential to winning the title. England had done it in 2003‚ and Australia before them in 1999. New Zealand have proven it in both 2011 and 2015.
“I took a lot of flak in those four years between 2004 and 2007 for picking some players over what the media and fans believed were ‘in-form’ players. But the proof was in the pudding when we won.”
White‚ whose contract was up for renewal at the end of 2007‚ had failed to get a long-term extension prior to the tournament. But he believed that if the Boks won the title‚ a renewal would be a mere formality.
In true South Africa rugby style though‚ Saru (as they were then known) advertised the Bok coaching position while the team was at the tournament.
White was expected to reapply for his job at a time when he was focusing on trying to win the World Cup. It was sheer madness.
In the aftermath White didn't seek a renewal‚ refusing to reapply in the belief that winning the Webb Ellis trophy was proof enough he had earned another four years.
Although many of the players carried on‚ the bond that team built was quickly broken down.
The eccentric Peter de Villiers took over from White and immediately tried to change the Boks’ style.
He eventually returned to the bulk of the 2007 team in 2009‚ and enjoyed a year of superb success‚ beating the British & Irish Lions and the All Blacks three times in succession.
That was the Boks’ last truly monumental season but it still feels like a massive chance passed SA by.