In what would become a preface to one of the greatest years in South African rugby’s history, a 11-year drought was finally broken: Super Rugby had it first local winner.
When the dust settled on a dramatic, absorbing final – won 20-19 in injury time – there was a feeling that Heyneke Meyer’s Bulls burgled the victory.
Indeed, the Sharks had held the upper hand for the majority of the game and, even though a raw 19-year-old Frans Steyn missed a simple conversion that would’ve put them out of sight, he merely needed to kick out his final possession for his team to be crowned champions.
Steyn didn’t, the Bulls kept the ball and Bryan Habana famously ghosted through for the unlikely winning score.
It was the type of temperament needed of a champion team, one that has a gear in reserve even if they didn’t play to their fullest potential.
And that’s what made Meyer’s vintage special.
They had actually showed it time and again during the round robin phase.
It was a crushing defeat for the Sharks, who had admirably found balance to their expansive game in the form of an accomplished assistant coach in John Plumtree.
Yet even if their fine group of youngters visibly matured in 2007, they clearly didn’t quite have the street smarts of the Bulls.
On a broader level, there was controversy as New Zealand decided to withdraw 22 of their top players for the first seven rounds.
There was an understandable view that the decision diluted the competitiveness of the competition, allowing the SA teams to take advantage.
However, that argument became more complicated once it turned out the Crusaders and Blues were far better without their national stars than with them.
Final top four log: Sharks (45 points – Played 13, Won 10, Lost 3); Bulls (42 points – Played 13, Won 9, Lost 4); Crusaders (42 points – Played 13, Won 8, Lost 5); Blues (42 points – Played 13, Won 9, Lost 4)
Top point scorer: Stephen Donald (Chiefs) 164 – 2 tries, 26 conversions, 34 penalties
Top SA point scorer: Derick Hougaard (Bulls) 161 – 28 conversions, 32 penalties, 3 drop goals
Top try scorer: JP Pietersen (Sharks) 12
How the SA campaign unfolded…
Bulls (Coached by Heyneke Meyer)
The heroics of the final, in hindsight, was just the moment to cap off a season where the Bulls BMT shone brightly.
Going into the final round, they needed to beat the Reds by 44 points or more to claim third place on the log and avoid an all-South African semifinal with the Sharks in Durban.
Yet when they went off for half-time 38-3 to the good, another thought suddenly popped up: could they win by 72 points or more, jump above the Crusaders in second place and claim a home semifinal?
That question was answered emphatically.
The Bulls went on to inflict a proper massacre, scoring 13 tries en route to a 92-3 win.
It was an astonishing feat of power and ruthlessness.
Another example of the pedigree was how they overturned two opening losses out of three to become the first South African team ever to win three matches on tour.
Sharks (Coached by Dick Muir)
It’s no understatement that the Sharks could almost claim to have dished up the perfect campaign.
They finished top of the log, hosted the final and were literally 90 seconds away from a crowning achievement.
Muir’s men truly did everything right.
They blended a talented, youthful back division with gnarled veterans up front in what proved a perfect recipe.
There was a very short mid-season wobble, when the Brumbies broke a six match winning streak stretching to the start of the campaign and the Force toppled them in their first overseas fixture, but they recovered quickly – memorably outlasting the Blues 32-25 in Auckland where Steyn kicked a 60m drop goal.
After 82 minutes in the final, they were champions.
Then Bryan Habana happened.
Stormers (Coached by Kobus van der Merwe)
Six wins from 13 matches provided an appropriate illustration of the Stormers’ mediocrity.
They weren’t necessarily bad, but simply lacked the continuity in terms of personnel (injuries were rampant again) as well as a clear plan on how they wanted to play.
Coach Kobus van der Merwe’s stock had been relatively low going into the campaign, though it certainly didn’t help that he couldn’t call on two fine provincial head coaches in Gary Gold and Hawies Fourie.
Internal strife also had an effect.
In round four, director of rugby Nick Mallett and CEO Rob Wagner flew to New Zealand after the team had lost its third game in four to go read the riot act and it seemed to work to an extent.
But the simmering discontent boiled over a few months later, when Van der Merwe was fired.
Cheetahs (Coached by Rassie Erasmus)
Rassie Erasmus’ time in Bloemfontein ended on a flat note as the Cheetahs finished a lowly 11th.
Much of the gains of the previous year was erased as injuries once again showed that the franchise simply didn’t have the depth to compete once the first-choicers were taken out of the equation.
Erasmus seemingly also wanted to test his depth at flyhalf by sidelining metronomic kicker Willem de Waal, who was at that stage slated to move to France at the end of the campaign, but the negotiations became complex and – with the pivot set to stay put longer – the coach had a change of heart.
It didn’t do much to change results and they eventually only won four matches.
Lions (Coached by Loffie Eloff)
Reborn as the Lions, there was a distinct new pride in the way the men from Ellis Park played.
Loffie Eloff, a former colonel in the army, combined his motivation skills with fine rugby nous to mould a team that, if short on class, at least played well as a collective.
They memorably beat the Crusaders 9-3 in a gritty encounter in Doornfontein and managed two consecutive away victories in Australia.
At one stage, they even sat in second position on the log, before they only managed one win from their last eight.
A massive problem was their ability to score tries – their 13 dot-downs was a record low for a season.