Even if they weren’t quite as compelling to watch as the previous year, Eddie Jones’ Brumbies finally managed to capture a Super Rugby title at the third attempt in 2001.
With the luxury of a virtually unchanged squad, the men from Canberra oozed their class when the stakes were at their highest – in the semifinal and final.
The Reds were disposed 30-6 in the last four, a match in which their talisman Stirling Mortlock was injured in the first half.
He would miss the climax against a resurgent Sharks, but that void was filled effectively as they eventually galloped to a 36-6 triumph.
It was a bitter pill to swallow for the Durbanites, who were in control for the first half, going into the break deadlocked at 6-all.
Frustratingly, it could’ve been a 15-6 lead had Butch James, enjoying an excellent campaign that would see him make his Test debut later in the year, not missed four shots at goal.
The Brumbies, clearly conscious of their let-off, took a deep breath at half-time and showed their legendary patience to put a deflated opposition to the sword.
The Sharks though still could take immense satisfaction out of a season that saw them go from finishing last to runners-up in just 12 months.
Meanwhile, the Cats made consecutive semifinal appearances and the Stormers finished just outside the top half of the table as South Africa in general experienced a heartening year.
It was a year of trauma for New Zealand, who didn’t have a single representative in the last four for the first time in the tournament’s history, three of their side finishing between 9th and 11th.
Final top four log: Brumbies (40 points – Played 11, Won 8, Lost 3); Sharks (38 points – Played 11, Won 8, Lost 3); Cats (34 points – Played 11, Won 7, Lost 4); Reds (32 points – Played 11, Won 6, Lost 5)
Top point scorer: Louis Koen (Cats) 157 – 2 tries, 18 conversions, 36 penalties, 1 drop goal
Top try scorer: Aisea Tuilevu (Highlanders), Andrew Walker (Brumbies) 8
Top SA try scorer: Breyton Paulse (Stormers) 7
How the SA campaign unfolded…
Sharks (Coached by Rudolf Straeuli)
Before tarnishing his reputation at the Springboks, Rudolf Straeuli garnered much praise in Durban for his level-headed, but adaptable approach. The former Springbok No 8 inherited a talented squad in the doldrums after the embarrassment of 2000. He used that year’s Currie Cup to boost morale and gain his players’ trust, also limiting the strain on them by employing a reasonably simple game-plan.
That ten-man pattern was exposed by Western Province in the final, Straeuli immediately realising he would need to expand his horizons. And that’s what made the Sharks so formidable during the campaign. They gritted it out in one-point wins over the Brumbies and Highlanders, before playing some sparkling and adventurous rugby for the rest of the season.
Straeuli also impressed with his man-management, fully utilising a squad system and keeping most of his top players fresh for the campaign. They were relentless in battering the Cats 30-12 in the semis yet should’ve made a better fist of the final.
Cats (Coached by Laurie Mains)
A year of high expectations fell flat as internal strife undermined the Cats. South African rugby did breathe a sigh of relief that their amalgamated franchise’s breakout season in 2000 was a fluke as New Zealander Laurie Mains masterminded an improved log position. All the strengths at the turn of the century were still intact, particularly a pack of forwards that genuinely instilled a sense of fear.
However, the Cats’ greatest weakness also didn’t disappear. Mains’ pragmatic, power game was as relevant as always, but his charges lacked the tools to really turn dominance up front into points. The fact that they only scored 27 tries in the whole campaign was an indictment on their lack of real punch.
Still, they would’ve comfortably topped the log had they not succumbed to a last-gasp Rod Kafer drop goal in a 19-17 loss to the Brumbies and were left to rue a shock 19-21 loss to the Bulls at Ellis Park. The tension mounted between Mains and his captain Rassie Erasmus, the two strong personalities clashing to such an extent that they criticised each other in public at the end of the season.
Stormers (Coached by Alan Solomons)
Alan Solomons’ swansong as coach went off-course as early as the opening game of the season, when the Cats clinched a deserved if unexpected 29-24 win at Newlands. That reverse seemed to spook the team, who then had to embark on a difficult four-match tour, which merely delivery a single win over the Hurricanes. Coming home, their record read one win from five starts.
That poor record put them too far off the pace, though a sterling 49-28 thrashing of defending champions the Crusaders was a big highlight. Things undeniably improved in the second half of the campaign, but the Stormers simply weren’t able to convince wholly. It didn’t help that a strangely underperforming pack couldn’t consistently lay a platform for a gifted backline.
Bulls (Coached by Phil Pretorius)
A bottom-of-the-log finish was hardly a shock to the Loftus faithful as Phil Pretorius, the Valke’s influential history doctorate coach, became the latest victim of the franchise’s alarming lack of depth. Again, the Bulls simply didn’t have the ammunition to launch a decent challenge.
However, Pretorius was successful in the sense that he at least managed to instill his charges with a bit of backbone. They were far more competitive on tour and managed to finally win more than a single match for the first time in three years. It was certainly also a pleasing sight to see Joost van der Westhuizen playing for the majority of the campaign.