25 years of Super Rugby: An era ends with Crusaders’ continued dominance

Justin Marshall of the Crusaders celebrates victory during the Super 12 Final between the Crusaders and the NSW Waratahs held at Jade Stadium May 28, 2005 in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

It’s business as usual as Richie McCaw and his troops relentlessly gobble up a title, but Heyeke Meyer’s dynasty at Loftus steadily takes shape.

Such were the standards set by the Crusaders over the preceding years that fans were becoming twitchy about their franchise not having won a Super Rugby title for two years.

2005 put an end to that relatively long wait as they romped to a fifth title in just ten years, emphatically illustrating that they were the best team of the Super 12 by a country mile.

In fact, Robbie Deans’ charges had only missed out on reaching a final on three occasions during that period.

The Crusaders’ triumph also drew a line under the much cherished 12-team format – something current audiences are yearning for again – as Sanzaar decided to expand the tournament to 14 teams the following year.

No-one could’ve quite foreseen how that decision would lead to the existential crisis the tournament is experiencing in 2020.

But back to the past.

Ewen McKenzie laid the foundation for a new, more prosperous chapter in the Waratahs’ history with an excellent campaign where they matched the Crusaders on the log in every aspect except point-scoring ability.

The men from Sydney were organised, enterprising, ruthless on defence and equipped with a mental steel uncharacteristic of previous vintages.

Yet the final was another superficial affair – much like 2004 – when the Crusaders were magical in establishing a 35-6 lead before the ‘Tahs scored three late tries to reduce the scoreline to 35-25.

South Africa had a poor campaign despite the dramatic revival of the Springboks under Jake White.

However, it was third time lucky for Heyneke Meyer – after forgettable coaching stints in 2000 and 2002 – as his Bulls’ dominance in the Currie Cup finally translated into Super Rugby success too.

Much like the Waratahs, the Bulls weren’t particularly free-scoring, but a rampant pack and some sound tackling gave them the confidence to keep adapting a game-plan that would eventually lead to three titles.

Final top four log: Crusaders (44 points – Played 11, Won 9, Lost 2); Waratahs (44 points – Played 11, Won 9, Lost 2); Bulls (34 points – Played 11, Won 7, Lost 4); Hurricanes (34 points – Played 11, Won 8, Lost 3)

Top point scorer: Peter Hewat (Waratahs) 173 – 10 tries, 18 conversions, 29 penalties

Top SA point scorer: Andre Pretorius (Cats) 118 – 2 tries, 15 conversions, 23 penalties, 3 drop goals

Top try scorer: Rico Gear (Crusaders) 15

Top SA try scorers: Bryan Habana (Bulls) 9

How the SA campaign unfolded…

Bulls (Coached by Heyneke Meyer)

Bryan Habana of the Bulls in action during the Super 12 match between the Vodacom Bulls and the Investec Stormers at the Securicor Loftus Stadium on May 14, 2005 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo by Touchline/Getty Images)

Four defeats in their first five matches threatened another chastening season for the Bulls, but what some critics weren’t counting on is how inspirational a vaunted, Bok-laden pack of forwards would transform their fortunes.

The Crusaders would feel the brunt of that passion and power, obliterated 35-20 at Loftus and that victory saw Meyer’s men embark on a six-match winning streak that carried them to a semifinal for the first time in a decade.

An undoubted highlight was a rousing 75-14 thrashing of the Stormers, the Bulls scoring nine tries in a record win.3.

Bryan Habana announced himself with nine tries by himself in the campaign, including a mesmerising 80m sprint down the touchline against the Blues.

Yet the Bulls didn’t quite have the refinement to go all the way, eventually lacking ideas to put the ‘Tahs away in a semifinal, lost 13-23.

Stormers (Coached by Gert Smal)

Marius Joubert in action during the Super 12 match between the Stormers and the Chiefs at Newlands Stadium on April 30, 2005 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Touchline/Getty Images)

Gert Smal’s final campaign as Super Rugby mentor ended on a disappointing and wasteful note as his celebrity-packed squad generally failed to cut the mustard, finishing ninth.

There could be an argument that it was a season of what-ifs.

They drew with the Highlanders in Dunedin and lost by three points to the Brumbies and Hurricanes away as well.

Had a 34-37 loss to the Blues at Newlands been reversed with those other near-misses, the Stormers’ season could’ve had a different complexion.

Yet that would’ve belied the structural problems that plagued the side.

The pack was familiarly underpowered and various Springbok stars, including World Player-of-the-Year Schalk Burger and another nominee in Marius Joubert, totally lost form.

In the end, the Stormers scored only scored 215 points the whole season, vividly showing how sterile their attack had become.

The Loftus massacre was merely the culmination.

Cats (Coached by Chester Williams)

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Wikus van Heerden
of the Cats in action during the Super 12 match between the Cats and the Sharks played at the Vodacom Park stadium on May 14, 2005 in Bloemfontein, South Africa. (Photo by Touchline Photo/Getty Images)+

 

Chester Williams’ success at sevens level proved elusive in the 15-man format as the Cats, in their final year combining the Lions and Free State, finished 11th.

Had it not been for the sins of the Sharks, they would’ve kept the wooden spoon for three successive years.

It was once again a mystery why the franchise underperformed so badly given the resources at their disposal.

Williams even recruited three of his former Springbok teammates in Marius Hurter, Naka Drotske and Ollie le Roux to add some wisdom into his equation, but the trio lacked sharpness and form.

It meant the Cats looked familiarly incoherent and, even more depressingly, lost their traditional try-scoring ability too.

At least the failed experiment of combining two provinces would finally be scrapped by the season’s end.

Sharks (Coached by Kevin Putt, then Dick Muir)

Ruan Pienaar of the Sharks in action during the Super 12’s match between the Natal Sharks and the ACT Brumbies at ABSA Stadium March 26, 2005 in Durban, South Africa. (Photo by Touchline Photo/Getty Images)

A last place finish wasn’t unprecedented in the Sharks’ history – they did so in 2000 – but, in hindsight, this one should’ve been expected.

During the off-season, the Sharks bizarrely contracted 13 new players of varying and even dubious quality.

It meant a transitional squad lacked proven class and it showed as the Durbanites conceded the most points in 2005.

Kevin Putt was sacked as mentor by round five and replaced by former Natal teammate Dick Muir, who at least fast tracked the rise of a certain Ruan Pienaar.

By the end of the year, Muir ditched most of his no-name brand recruits and trusted his academy system more.

It would pay dividends later.

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