Their unbeaten run – extending to 20 Tests from the start of last year’s World Cup – came to a shuddering halt in London as England beat them 38-21, giving some hope to the chasing pack that are busy growing sides for the 2015 showpiece tournament.
It was a fabulous end to the year for the Red Roses after promising much but delivering little in losing three times to the Springboks and once each to Australia and Wales.
South Africa were also busy building a team, having lost the likes of John Smit, Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez, Bakkies Botha, Jaque Fourie and Danie Rossouw. Their new coach, Heyneke Meyer, seemed to have developed a sturdy, hardy outfit as they ended the year with an unbeaten northern hemisphere tour, but there were few flashes of brilliance from the Springboks and the rugby they played was generally dull.
Australia endured a troubled year, beset by injuries and speculation over the future of coach Robbie Deans, but if the crop of talented youngsters they have reach full bloom, then they will certainly be a major threat at the next World Cup.
Argentina immediately showed the benefits of joining New Zealand, Australia and South Africa in the southern hemisphere’s Rugby Championship (replacing the Tri-Nations) for the first time, and the game can only grow in that country.
France, under new coach Philippe Saint-André, are also developing rapidly into another formidable outfit.
Wonderful attacking flair was once again the hallmark of the All Blacks’ success, but their game was also based on a steely defence and the core of experience that ran through the side was also a great help. By the end of the year, Tony Woodcock (96), Keven Mealamu (102), Owen Franks (45), Richie McCaw (116), Kieran Read (48), Dan Carter (94), Ma’a Nonu (76), Conrad Smith (66), Cory Jane (41) and Piri Weepu (69) had 753 caps between them, compared to the 431 the entire Springbok team had for their last Test of the year, also against England in London.
But South Africa had won – albeit by just a point – in the rain at Twickenham the week before against the same England side that then put the All Blacks to the sword and the other indication that they are not impossibly far off the world champions came in Dunedin in September when they tied New Zealand down for long periods. They would ultimately pay for Morne Steyn’s poor goalkicking and Dean Greyling’s lack of discipline in that match, going down 21-11.
In their return meeting in October, the iconic FNB Stadium would prove to be no protection from the attacking brilliance of the All Blacks as they swept to a 32-16 victory in their most impressive display of the year. Without the amulet of forward dominance, the Springboks were made to look second-best and the anti-Meyer chorus grew louder.
But even the All Blacks’ attacking brilliance is no protection from defeat if they lose the forward battle, as England showed two weeks ago when their pack put their bodies on the line in such impressive fashion.
The good news for the Springboks is that it is easy to see their pack developing into a world-class unit. Despite the absence of Bismarck du Plessis for most of the year through injury, Adriaan Strauss stepped in and enjoyed a superb season in the middle of the front row. Jannie du Plessis manfully filled the tighthead berth throughout the year, but there is no lack of loosehead talent with Tendai Mtawarira, Gurthro Steenkamp, Heinke van der Merwe and Coenie Oosthuizen all in the frame.
Eben Etzebeth showed signs that he will fill the considerable boots of Bakkies Botha, while, despite several injuries, the loose forward stocks still look strong with Francois Louw, Willem Alberts, Marcell Coetzee and Duane Vermeulen all having an impressive year.
It is among the backs where the future looks cloudy for the Springboks.
Burly inside centre Francois Steyn only played half of the Tests in 2012 due to injury, captain Jean de Villiers slotting into the number 12 jersey in his absence. With problems inside of them – Morne Steyn was in poor form at flyhalf, Johan Goosen was then injured before Pat Lambie eventually played in Britain and Ireland – there was little inspiration from the backline when it came to attack.
In Meyer’s defence, his first year in charge was always going to be a conservative one. In 2013, he should be able to build on the positives of 2012, most notably some incredible defensive displays, to ensure the Springboks are no longer left in the wake of the All Blacks.