If anyone thought the Crusaders’ unexpectedly poor 2001 season, where they finished ninth of the log, indicated the start of a decline, they were sorely mistaken.
Instead, Robbie Deans’ charges produced the first “perfect” season in the history of the tournament a year later, winning all 13 of their matches (including the two playoff battles) to grab a fourth title in five years.
The Blues of 1997 were also unbeaten, but drew one match.
Interestingly, the trophy-handing ceremony was really only the cherry on top for the Crusaders as the real highlight was their stupendous and frankly unbelievable 96-19 win over the Waratahs in their final round-robin game.
That performance was the personification of perfect, as the New Zealanders delivered the type of attacking and support play that one only dreams of.
The skill on show was simply mesmerising and there was an actual sense of disappointment when All Black flyhalf Andrew Mehrtens’ 14th conversion of the game struck the right upright, ending his 100% kicking record for the night.
It was a morale-shattering loss for the ‘Tahs who, at that stage, had enjoyed a fantastic, breakout season.
Up until that dark night in Christchurch, they had only conceded 19 tries for the entire season.
The hangover was felt in the next weekend’s all-Australian semifinal against the Brumbies, lost 10-51.
Even if that suggested the Brumbies, the defending champions, might be imposing again, they were no match for the Crusaders in losing the final 13-31.
The less said about South Africa’s season, the better.
Between them, the four franchises won a pitiful ten matches. Eish.
Final top four log: Crusaders (51 points – Played 11, Won 11); Waratahs (39 points – Played 11, Won 8, Lost 3); Brumbies (38 points – Played 11, Won 7, Lost 4); Highlanders (38 points – Played 11, Won 8, Lost 3)
Top point scorer: Andrew Mehrtens (Crusaders) 182 – 1 try, 30 conversions, 35 penalties, 4 drop goals
Top SA point scorer: Percy Montgomery (Stormers) 120 – 1 try, 20 conversions, 25 penalties
Top try scorer: Roger Randle (Chiefs) 12
Top SA try scorer: Pieter Rossouw (Stormers) 11
How the SA campaign unfolded…
Stormers (Coached by Gert Smal)
The Capetonians’ campaign under a new coach could be classified as promising, but little more.
An eventual seventh place failed to improve on 2001’s finish, though there were enough agonising defeats to make one wonder whether the Stormers should’ve made it into the semis.
They lost by one point twice at home – against the Waratahs and Highlanders, who both made the last four – and by three in Brisbane, where the Reds prevailed by 49-46 in a thriller.
However, their losses against the eventual finalists were far more emphatic, suggesting the franchise didn’t quite possess the class to go all the way anyway.
Smal did well overcome injuries to various stalwarts and in some positions had to patently improvise, none more so than at flyhalf, where a journeyman fullback named Werner Greeff made a big impression … and became a Springbok.
Daan Human, nowadays the renowned scrum guru of the Bulls and Boks, also differentiated himself as one of the best looseheads in the country that year.
Sharks (Coached by Rudolf Straeuli, then Kevin Putt)
The Durbanites, admirable finalists in 2001, were doomed early in the season after they lost their opening five matches, of which four were overseas.
They had lost much of the steel that they showed 12 months before, though they did have one hugely disruptive factor in mitigation: they lost their head coach by the end of the trip to Australasia.
National coach Harry Viljoen had unexpectedly resigned in January, leaving SA Rugby to frantically search for replacements.
There weren’t any standout candidates except for the relatively successful Rudolf Straeuli.
He left the Sharks camp in the middle of their second week on tour to conduct his interview and then rushed back.
Some on the panel felt Straeuli was distracted in making his case for his elevation as he understandably wanted to get back to his team, but it was basically a done deal anyway.
Former Sharks scrumhalf Kevin Putt was put in charge for the rest of the season and did well to give the season some respectability, winning four of the team’s last six matches.
It could’ve been six had they not lost by three and one to the Crusaders and Reds.
Cats (Coached by Frans Ludeke)
Two years of feasts under Kiwi Laurie Mains turned into famine as the Cats slumped back into familiar territory in the cellar of the log.
It certainly didn’t help that they were victims of a massive injury curse, which deprived them of various Springboks.
However, those absences merely illustrated that the depth at the franchise – quite strong in the beginning despite the indifferent results – had started to wane.
The diminutive Andre Pretorius though shot to fame in becoming the Springboks’ preferred No 10, while Lawrence Sephaka laid the foundation for a successful international campaign at prop, but there was little else to celebrate.
Bulls (Coached by Heyneke Meyer)
Following a year out of Super Rugby to concentrate on establishing himself at the Blue Bulls, Heyneke Meyer stoically took the coaching job no-one else in the country (at that stage) had wanted.
The results were still surprising – the Bulls became the first franchise in history to lose all of their games during the season and conceded a then record 500 tries and 67 tries.
It was pretty nasty to witness.
However, with the benefit of hindsight, Meyer’s persistence with certain players – Danie Rossouw, Bakkies Botha, Etienne Botha and Pedrie Wannenburg – was proven to be justified as they would become mainstays in his revolution at Loftus.
Yet at that stage, it all just seemed doom and gloom.