The Crusaders were looking in desperate shape.
They had just succumbed to a Bob Skinstad-inspired Stormers at Newlands, which left them a lowly eighth on 1999’s Super Rugby log.
A week later, they required a last-gasp drop goal from legendary flyhalf Andrew Mehrtens to scrape to a 30-28 win over the lowly Bulls at Loftus.
Let’s just say Wayne Smith’s charges weren’t playing like a title-defending outfit.
They returned home and drove just over 400km north to Nelson, where they would face the entertaining by wayward Cats.
Within half an hour, the Crusaders were down 6-31 as SA’s central franchise ran riot, centre Conrad Stoltz scoring a quickfire hat-trick.
Any playoff hopes were rapidly slipping away before the hosts launched one of the most stupendous comebacks in the history of the tournament, scoring seven tries en route to a 58-38 victory.
And that became the hallmark of a pretty stunning second title-winning campaign as they went on to embrace their relative underdog status by winning both their playoff matches away from home.
It was a galling year for the two frontrunners.
The Reds defended magnificently and had a deadly accurate kicking flyhalf in Nathan Spooner in topping the log, but their game-plan was woefully unbalanced and their lack of punch on attack eventually caught up with them.
Alan Solomons’ Stormers were one of the form teams of the tournament before a shabby players’ strike ahead of their semifinal against the Highlanders blew everything out of the water.
But that’s a story worthy of telling on its own…
Final top four log: Reds (36 points – Played 11, Won 8, Lost 2, Draw 1); Stormers (36 points – Played 11, Won 8, Lost 3); Highlanders (35 points – Played 11, Won 8, Lost 3); Crusaders (33 points – Played 11, Won 7, Lost 3, Draw 1)
Top point scorer: Andrew Mehrtens (Crusaders) 192 – 1 try, 23 conversions, 43 penalties, 4 drop goals
Top SA point scorer: Braam van Straaten (Stormers) 152 – 2 tries, 20 conversions, 34 penalties.
Top try scorers: Conrad Stoltz (Cats), Afato So’oalo (Crusaders), Joe Roff (Brumbies) 8
How the SA campaign unfolded…
Stormers (Coached by Alan Solomons)
There was much to celebrate at Newlands in 1999.
The Stormers became the first South African team ever to claim a home semifinal in the tournament and in general crafted a game-plan that was decidedly more varied than many other opposition.
Solomons was heavily criticised in round three when he played an unashamed B-team against the Highlanders in Dunedin in order to manage his first-choice players, Sanzaar going even as far as suggesting the Cape franchise “broke the spirit of the competition”.
Nonetheless, the plan worked well as the Stormers mentor had most of his top players throughout.
One massive setback though was when captain Skinstad, a few hours after the Crusaders victory, lost control of his car and injured his knee ligaments in the ensuing accident.
It left a gaping hole in the Stormers’ overall potency, which was plastered over initially before THAT strike ruined everything.
Sharks (Coached by Ian McIntosh)
The Sharks’ season was bound to be all about sentimentality in 1999.
“Ian Mac” as well as the “Rolls Royce of Fullbacks”, Andre Joubert, would make their final appearances that year, while Bok skipper Gary Teichmann and peerless pivot Henry Honiball were building towards swansongs with the national team at the World Cup later.
But the overall impression of the Durbanites was a team that had reached its sell-by date.
There was no denying that the class of the elder statesmen kept standards reasonably high, but more savvy opponents had now found ways to counter them.
After three successive playoff appearances, the end of an era had come.
Cats (Coached by Andre Markgraaff)
Left red-faced by 1998’s shocking campaign, SA Rugby decided they needed to provide as much support as possible to their mixed beast that was the Lions and Free State.
With the enigmatic and controversial Andre Markgraaff enlisted as head coach after a brilliant previous year unlocking Griquas’ potential, the governing body provided extra funding and Markgraaff promptly decided to address the problem of picking a home base.
The Lions wanted to stay in Jozi, the Free Staters in Bloem.
So Markgraaff came up with a compromise … everyone would stay in Vanderbijlpark for the duration of the tournament.
At least the Cats managed to win two more matches than their inaugural year – four – and could’ve easily been in semifinal contention had they reversed three defeats to the Highlanders, Chiefs and Crusaders, all outings they should’ve won.
Yet Markgraaff’s hit-and-miss man-management and inconsistent selection policy drained a squad low on morale even further.
Despite a fantastic squad – at least on paper – in place, result were worryingly poor.
Bulls (Coached by Eugene van Wyk)
Over the years there had been numerous Bulls squads of suspect quality, but 1999’s vintage ranked as one of the dodgiest.
They managed a solitary one win and conceded 447 points in a Super Rugby season known as the “Year of the Boot”, essentially meaning that amount of points conceded was embarrassing given how little real attacking rugby was played overall.
It didn’t help that the Bulls missed out on the injured Joost van der Westhuizen for the whole of the season and only had inspirational flanker and skipper Ruben Kruger featuring in three matches.
Weirdly, despite bemoaning that the franchise was sucking on the hind teat in terms of contracting the top talent in the country, coach Eugene van Wyk only used three of his four players during the campaign for more than 10 matches.