It’s been nearly a decade since the All Blacks had a true rival, tasting the pain of multiple defeats against the same opponent. They have dished punishment to many sides, and few have returned the favour with regularity.
That’s what makes the 2009 Springboks special – no side has done or since come close to doing, what they did. They beat the All Blacks 3-0 to claim the Tri-Nations title, the first and only side to sweep the All Blacks in a series, in a season for the ages that might be the best on record for a South African national side.
It was a brief period in an age of All Blacks dominance where the Springboks held World Rugby’s number one ranking and truly earned it.
This was a first-class outfit headlined by a number of players considered the best in the world at their position – Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Bryan Habana, Jean de Villiers as well as the reliable boot of test debutant Morne Steyn and long-distance sniper Francois Steyn.
The pack was monstrous with other young talents like Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira and rare athletic specimens like Pierre Spies coming off the back of the scrum, and Bismarck Du Plessis packing down in the front row. This was a side that could beat you down physically, overpower you mentally, and ultimately force you into submission. Death by ‘3’s’ was an accurate summation of how they played, with the sharpshooter Steyn knocking them over from everywhere.
This could be said to be the height of Bok Rugby, a side at the peak of its powers just two years removed from a World Cup victory. A large contingent of the 2007 World Champions were still in the side, mixed with emerging talent from the Bulls who were building a Super Rugby dynasty.
That same year the Bulls had captured their second Super Rugby title in three years and would go on to win a third in 2010. They crushed a hapless Chiefs outfit 61-17 in the final in front of 60,000 at Loftus to officially crown themselves as a dominant force.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise then, that the Springboks would mirror the success of the Bulls. In an age where physicality and goal kicking reigned supreme, the Springboks had the most physical team and the best goal kickers on the planet.
The first assignment of the year was a touring British & Irish Lions side, a historic and revered opponent that would give the Springboks a chance to make an early statement.
Ahead of the first test, A British journalist asked vice-captain Victor Matfield in half admiration, half intimidation: “Can you get any better? Tell me you can’t get any better.”
The Springboks answered by clinching the series 2-0 within the first two tests, with the boot of Morne Steyn playing an integral role, sealing the second test 28-25 with a 52-metre penalty after a 26-21 win in the first test. The Lions won the dead-rubber third test as South Africa dealt with suspensions to key players.
Ahead of the 2009 Tri-Nations, the All Blacks were chasing a fifth consecutive title and were certainly the favourites. Although the Springboks had tasted World Cup success, they had a hangover of sorts in 2008 crashing back to earth with a 2-4 record in the Tri-Nations that year.
With home ground advantage in the three-match series against the All Blacks, 2009 would be much different.
Centre Jean de Villiers, who formed an imposing midfield with Jaque Fourie that year, recalled his memories of that side in an interview with SA Rugby Magazine.
“That side was stacked with X-factor players and it was completely united.
The Springboks put away the All Blacks 28-19 in the first test in Bloemfontein with two tries, the second of which sealed the match in the 73rd minute.
In the balance at 20-16, Pierre Spies hacked a loose ball downfield, which was picked up by Jaque Fourie who scored in the corner. Francios Steyn added a couple of penalties and Morne Steyn, coming off the bench, kicked three in the second stanza.
In Durban, the second test was arguably the individual achievement of Morne Steyn’s test career – a record 31-point haul against the All Blacks, scoring every point in a 31-19 win. It was just his fifth test match and only his second start. He kicked eight penalties, punishing nearly every All Blacks infringement with 3 points.
A decisive try on the stroke of halftime by Steyn pulled the Boks away 22-13. After a tighthead win on the 5-metre line, where the All Blacks scrum was demolished, Steyn strolled over basically untouched.
The third and final test against the All Blacks would decide the Tri-Nations and was to be played in Hamilton. It was also the return of Dan Carter, who had been injured for most of the season with an Achilles injury.
“Part of the belief in that side was down to the fact we had beaten the All Blacks in New Zealand in 2008 and then twice in the early stages of the 2009 Tri-Nations. Winning became a habit,” said de Villiers.
The Springboks continued their run, getting on top of the All Blacks on the scoreboard forcing them to chase the game.
Two long-range penalties from 60-metres and 57-metres from the ‘Superboot’ Francois Steyn stunned the Hamilton crowd, and a further drop goal from Morne Steyn gave the Springboks an early 9-6 lead. A try to halfback Fourie du Preez had his side up 22-12 at halftime.
10 minutes into the second half Jean de Villiers put the icing on the cake, with a trademark intercept off Dan Carter to stretch the lead out to 29-12. A late comeback by the All Blacks fell short and the Springboks completed history with a 32-29 win in Hamilton becoming the first and only side to sweep the All Blacks in a series.
2009 was labeled ‘The Year of the Springbok’ and this side was thought to be the best ever – the current World Cup holders, holders of the number one ranking, the Tri-Nations champions, holders of the Freedom Cup and the Mandela Plate, and Super Rugby champions. They held the Sevens World title for good measure too.
It is hard to argue that it wasn’t the greatest Bok team ever. They have also been proven over time to be the last great rival to the All Blacks, with no team coming close to achieving the same feat.