There was no faulting the irrepressible Crusaders as they won a third consecutive Super Rugby title in 2000.
As they did in the previous two seasons, they took playing away from home in their stride and their triumph at Bruce Stadium in Canberra was notable for how they maximised their limited scoring opportunities.
Legendary All Black flyhalf was the men from Christchurch’s hero, proving a dead-eye dick from the kicking tee once again.
However, while the best two teams of the tournament contested the showpiece, there was a fair sense of injustice going around – that the best team didn’t win.
Eddie Jones’ Brumbies were absolutely outstanding, a beast of a team that did almost everything right.
Their season-high 48 tries made them the most dangerous outfit on attack by a country mile, while they combined that with a watertight defence that only conceded 12 times.
But the real treat was the way they did it: an intelligent game-plan based on patience, superb ball-retention and creativity.
Jones’ charges should’ve won the final comfortably, but were let down by a certain rookie winger named Stirling Mortlock’s poor day with the boot, where he missed four kicks at goal.
His general play though was magical as he laid the foundation for a legendary career as Wallaby.
Meanwhile, New Zealander Laurie Mains – the All Blacks’ coach when the Boks won in 1995 – was given the poisoned chalice of somehow getting the Lions and Free State to gel into the Cats and miraculously managed to do so.
Mains was recruited by Louis Luyt late in 1998 to sharpen up a faltering Lions outfit and managed to win the domestic double in 1999, rendering him the automatic choice to mentor the central franchise.
It was an entertaining ride, with the Cats recovering from a 64-0 mauling at the hands of the Brumbies to win their final five matches and squeak into the semis.
The team they pushed out was the Stormers, who also improved their form dramatically in the second half of the season, but could eventually only manage fifth place.
Down in the basement of the log, the Bulls were in familiar territory under a young Heyneke Meyer though they were spared the wooden spoon by the Sharks, who plumbed the depths as they tried to re-build from the golden Ian McIntosh era.
Final top four log: Brumbies (45 points – Played 11, Won 9, Lost 2); Crusaders (39 points – Played 11, Won 8, Lost 3); Highlanders (32 points – Played 11, Won 6, Lost 5); Cats (32 points – Played 11, Won 7, Lost 4)
Top point scorer: Stirling Mortlock (Brumbies) 192 – 4 tries, 39 conversions, 32 penalties
Top SA point scorer: Louis Koen (Cats) 135 – 1 try, 20 conversions, 28 penalties, 2 drop goals
Top try scorer: Andrew Walker (Brumbies) 13
Top SA try scorer: Breyton Paulse (Stormers) 10
How the SA campaign unfolded…
Cats (Coached by Laurie Mains)
The interesting thing about the Cats under Mains was how well the Kiwi coach actually understood the strengths of South African rugby. The franchise played a typical power game based on an imposing pack that would create pressure that a talented backline could score points from.
Yet the Cats only really seemed to start believing in themselves once they returned from their tour, when a Louis Koen penalty in injury time saw them win 28-27 in Durban. They then sprung to full life with a magnificent 54-31 thrashing of the Crusaders at Ellis Park, a beautiful if rare instance where their dominance was supported by points.
They still needed to beat the Chiefs by a bonus point to make the final four at the expense of the Stormers and duly did so with a rousing, seven-try 53-3 victory in Bloemfontein. That meant a semifinal trip to Canberra, where they kept the Brumbies to a 11-5 lead with just six minutes remaining.
Had Koen not left his kicking boots at home, it might’ve been a different story. In the end, the Aussies rumbled late on to win 28-5.
Stormers (Coached by Alan Solomons)
A season that was expected to be one of transition following 1999’s fine if eventual deflating campaign turned into a decent one for the Cape franchise. It certainly didn’t start well. By the fourth round, they’d only won once and, more worryingly, had only scored two tries in 430 minutes of rugby.
With a four-match tour ahead, coach Alan Solomons decided to throw caution to the wind and the Stormers rediscovered their attacking potency as they scored eight tries in their two victories on the road, including a memorable 39-18 win over the Blues at Eden Park.
They kept the heat on the Cats in the final round when they overturned a 8-22 deficit to come roaring back 32-28 against the Sharks in Durban, but a 19-all draw against the Bulls way back in round three proved immensely costly. It denied them the two log points they would’ve needed to reach the last four.
Bulls (Coached by Heyneke Meyer)
Heyneke Meyer was a young man on the rise. The previous year he’d been the promising scrum guru in a formidable Stormers setup and ended it being one of Nick Mallett’s Springbok assistants at the World Cup. Armed with the recruitment of four national players in Jannie de Beer, Naka Drotske, Os du Randt and Anton Leonard, Meyer’s first high-profile gig looked reasonably rosy.
It quickly turned into a nightmare. Meyer discovered that while his pack was decent, he possessed a backline of very poor quality. In the end, they relied far too much on De Beer’s educated boot to keep them afloat. Joost van der Westhuizen and Ruben Kruger’s absences also robbed them of two prominent on-field and spiritual leaders.
However, the general feeling was that the Bulls simply didn’t possess the overall squad to make a decent challenge and perhaps promoted Meyer a bit too early in his coaching career.
Sharks (Coached by Hugh Reece-Edwards)
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Given the amount of class and experience that left the franchise at the end of 1999, the Sharks were essentially forced to start from a blank page. Not that new coach Hugh Reece-Edwards could complain about the resources he got in return.
The Durbanites recruited well in the off-season and boasted a pretty powerful squad. What ultimately derailed them was the fact that Reece-Edwards, a former assistant and disciple of Ian McIntosh, did little to renew the Sharks’ approach. Instead, the old pattern of rapid recycling continued to be used, yet as the franchise would find out, rather dishearteningly, the rest of the world had moved on.