2003 had been a horror year for South African rugby.
No Super Rugby semifinalists, an early elimination from the World Cup, the Geo Cronje-Quinton Davids race scandal and Kamp Staaldraad were all dominant intrusions that sunk the local game to one of the lowest points in its history.
So it was highly surprising then that, in round seven of 2004’s Super Rugby edition, three South African teams found themselves in the top five of the overall log.
In hindsight, at least two of them should’ve made it into the semifinals.
As it turned out, only Gert Smal’s Stormers managed to make it into the top four as the local challenge imploded on the final stretch.
All four franchises lost in rounds nine and ten, with the Sharks in particular having reason to rue yet another season of poor form at home.
Whether any of them could’ve challenged for the title though was debatable as the Brumbies strode to a second title.
The Aussies were a huge attacking force throughout, scoring 55 tries in the regular season and a further 12 in the two playoffs.
Seven of those came in a spectacular final, where they raced into a 33-0 lead over the Crusaders after just 18 minutes.
They kept up the tempo and only a late rally by the New Zealanders saw the scoreboard read a more respectable 47-38.
The aggregate of 85 points made it the most free-scoring Super Rugby climax in history.
The Chiefs notably reached the last four for the first time in their history, steadily laying the foundation for glory about a decade later.
Final top four log: Brumbies (40 points – Played 11, Won 8, Lost 3); Crusaders (34 points – Played 11, Won 7, Lost 4); Stormers (33 points – Played 11, Won 7, Lost 4); Chiefs (33 points – Played 11, Won 7, Lost 4)
Top point scorer: Dan Carter (Crusaders) 201 – 6 tries, 27 conversions, 39 penalties
Top SA point scorer: Butch James (Sharks) 118 – 2 tries, 21 conversions, 22 penalties
Top try scorer: Mark Gerrard, Stirling Mortlock (Brumbies) 10
Top SA try scorers: Brent Russell (Sharks) 7
How the SA campaign unfolded…
Stormers (Coached by Gert Smal)
The Capetonians were undoubtedly South Africa’s best team on show.
For once they had stability in the back division, with the centre pairing of De Wet Barry and Marius Joubert generally wreaking havoc, be it on the playmaking front or being surprisingly pesky presences at the breakdown.
Captain Corne Krige, who soured the end of his Super Rugby career with a crazy double headbutt on Chief centre Derek Maisey that led to an eight-week ban, did well to help a pack lacking true world-class talents to punch above their weight though a real superstar in a 21-year-old Schalk Burger burst onto the scene.
It was the blonde-haired wonder that helped the Stormers into the semis with a fabulous, skillful grab off a dodgy pass to record a nervy 31-24 win over the Sharks in Durban.
They also memorably humbled the Blues 51-23 in Auckland, scoring eight tries in the process but were left to rue a careless 19-25 loss at home to Hurricanes (who only finished 11th) in round three for denying them a home semi.
Instead, they had to travel to Christchurch to face the Crusaders and gave a good account of themselves in leading 13-12 at half-time before the toll of having to cross 20 time zones in just under ten days became too much.
Bulls (Coached by Rudy Joubert)
If one were to be brutally honest, 2004 was a year of stagnation for the Bulls.
Sixth place was hardly a disgrace, but it didn’t improve on the previous season’s exact same finish despite coach Rudy Joubert now boasting an imposing squad that would evolve into Heyneke Meyer’s behemoth.
Once skipper Victor Matfield returned from injury in round four, the Bulls pack went into overdrive as they laid the foundation for one of just three defeats the Brumbies would suffer in 2004.
That power proved to be the cornerstone of their game.
Yet Joubert, a man with attacking inclinations, really wanted to expand his horizons but found that his team’s attack lacked punch.
They would eventually score 36 tries during the season, but nine of those came in a meaningless Jukskei derby against the Cats on the final day of the regular season.
Sharks (Coached by Kevin Putt)
When the Sharks got hammered 14-48 by the Waratahs in their second game of the campaign, another season of underachievement beckoned.
But then the Durbanites found their familiar resolve overseas, narrowly losing 20-23 in Canberra to the Brumbies and then winning both their fixtures in New Zealand.
Two further home victories put them second on the log.
Inexplicably, the Sharks collapsed.
A 27-34 loss to the Chiefs saw doubts creep into their game, leading to the infamous and frankly horrendous 5-6 loss to the Reds, a game still considered the worst in the tournament’s existence.
By then, the Sharks had forgotten again how to win … and worse was to follow the next season.
Cats (Coached by Tim Lane, then Chester Williams)
Another year, another wooden spoon.
The Cats were shocking in general once again, winning a solitary match against the Chiefs at Ellis Park and continuing to lack in coherence and leadership.
Aussie Tim Lane was sacked slap-bang in the middle of the franchise’s bye week, ending a reign that delivered two wins from 16 matches.
He was replaced by legendary Bok winger Chester Williams, who put the Blitzboks on the map, but he struggled to change much.
There was a memorable afternoon against the Crusaders, where the Cats managed to overturn a 6-36 deficit after 45 minutes to lead 37-36 half-an-hour later.
Unfortunately, a last-gasp Dan Carter penalty sunk the greatest comeback.