After four years of pronounced underachievement, the Blues – who so memorably clinched the first two titles of Super Rugby – belatedly completed a hat-trick in 2003.
Peter Sloane’s charges were full value for their overall win, benefiting from their coach’s stable selection policy and an immensely potent back three of Doug Howlett, Joe Rokocoko and Rupeni Caucaunibuca, who between them scored an astonishing 26 of their side’s 61 tries.
That represented 42% of all the times the Blues crossed the whitewash.
Yet such finishing power is only possible when the men around them create those opportunities.
The enigmatic Carlos Spencer was simply mesmerising at flyhalf, dictating proceedings with his creativity, but providing some balance to his own product with some good kicking too.
The biggest factor, however, was the presence of an all-All Black front row in Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu and Kees Meeuws, whose class meant there was consistently a platform to build on from.
Facing them in the final – a gritty affair won 21-17 – were the Crusaders, whose collective star power saw them easily dispose of most opponents without actually playing to their full potential.
Their potency and organisation was hampered by a long-term injury to national pivot Andrew Mehrtens, though in his place stepped up a certain raw talent named Dan Carter…
South Africa’s challenge was virtually non-existent for a second consecutive year.
The wily Rudy Joubert curbed his natural attacking instincts as coach to craft a forward-orientated game-plan that saw the Bulls suddenly dig themselves out of the deep hole they’d fallen in since 1999, finishing sixth and just two log points away from a semifinal.
The rest though was dross.
Final top four log: Blues (49 points – Played 11, Won 10, Lost 1); Crusaders (40 points – Played 11, Won 8, Lost 3); Hurricanes (35 points – Played 11, Won 7, Lost 4); Brumbies (31 points – Played 11, Won 6, Lost 5)
Top point scorer: Carlos Spencer (Blues) 143 – 3 tries, 31 conversions, 22 penalties
Top SA point scorer: Louis Koen (Bulls) 139 – 17 conversions, 28 penalties, 7 drop goals
Top try scorer: Doug Howlett (Blues) 12
Top SA try scorers: Frikkie Welsh (Bulls), Andre Snyman (Sharks) 5
How the SA campaign unfolded…
Bulls (Coached by Rudy Joubert)
2003 was interesting for the reason that SA Rugby had actually centrally contracted all four local franchises’ coaches.
That’s why a relative stranger in Joubert came into the Loftus fray at the expense of Heyneke Meyer, who the previous season beat immense odds against him and his coaching team to claim the Currie Cup title.
Yet, given the failures of his first two Super Rugby campaigns, it was understandable Joubert – a stalwart at SA Rugby in various capacities – was favoured.
While the Bulls didn’t always seem a natural fit for his more adventurous approach to the game, Joubert showed adaptability in making a rapidly improving and imposing pack of forwards the cornerstone of his assault and breathed life into veteran pivot Louis Koen’s career.
That, however, came at the expense of a 19-year-old darling in Derick Hougaard, but Joubert was steadfast in doing things his way.
Ultimately though, a lack of cutting edge on attack, ironically, meant the Bulls narrowly missed out on place in the last four.
Stormers (Coached by Gert Smal)
Injuries again hammered the Cape franchise, who essentially spent the whole season trying to plug gaps.
As a result, there was little continuity and consistency in results, with a depressing lack of try-scoring ability being a major weakness.
It must be said though that the Stormers simply didn’t have any of their backline stars in harness for an extended period of time to remotely promote some potency.
But there were two notable highlights.
They denied the Bulls a place in the semifinals with a gritty if somewhat fortunate 27-24 win at Loftus and came back from 0-21 down against the Waratahs in Sydney – after losing two starting members of the backline – to record a rousing 39-29 victory.
Sharks (Coached by Kevin Putt)
In a season of transition, the Durbanites’ campaign was derailed by some appalling form at home.
They only managed win from five matches at King’s Park, wasting an ideal platform at the start – four home games in succession – to build a head of steam.
At least they rediscovered their zest for playing overseas, winning in Hamilton and running the eventual finalists close.
In fact, the Sharks led at half-time in both those games, only to surrender in the final 40.
Cats (Coached by Tim Lane)
A youthful Cats team vividly illustrated in 2003 how far behind South African rugby was at the time in terms of professionalism.
They had a new, forward-thinking coach in Aussie and (then) Springbok assistant Tim Lane, whose ideas simply proved too radical.
Lane, along with right-hand man Ray Mordt, believed in player empowerment, giving individuals the freedom to take the lead in their own preparation.
But there were two glaring problems: the culture of local rugby was too regimented and coddling, while Lane’s squad was probably also too inexperienced at that stage to be entrusted with such a responsibility.
As a result, the Cats were wayward all season, lacking coherency and only winning two matches.
Lane went as far as letting the forwards coach themselves, but it led to nothing more than frustrating individualism.