Springboks: A year of misled refs and superior skill
Comeback of the year: Fourie du Preez
One of the reasons South Africa did not progress beyond the quarterfinals of the World Cup in 2011 was that Du Preez was never fit. He carried a shoulder injury for too long, and it showed. But two years on a Japanese pension scheme sorted him out and, as soon as he took the field against Argentina in Soweto in August, what we had been missing became obvious.
Crisp clearing at the breakdowns, unerring decision-making under pressure and a remarkable turn of pace when required.
One thing that he needs to work on is his kicking game. That may seem sacrilegious to those who remember the way he piloted Jake White's teams to the sound of leather on leather, but the game has moved on. Rarely in history has South Africa had a more talented back line, but reducing it to pawns chasing the high ball emasculates it.
Game of the year: South Africa 27, New Zealand 38, Ellis Park
In defeat, the Springboks cast off their conservative yoke and ran riot, but the baby was thrown out with the bath water as their steely defence had more holes punched in it than a colander. It was possible, however, to see that the All Blacks are as vulnerable as any other team when the ball is moved swiftly to the extremities.
Nothing in the careers of either Duane Vermeulen or Francois Louw prepared us for the sight of each man mountain eschewing power for pace and subtlety. They created a try apiece for Bryan Habana by drawing the last defender and flipping the ball to the charging wing. On another day, they would have sought the security of contact and died with the ball. The glory of those moments should light the way for the Boks to win the next World Cup.
Chirp of the year: Jean de Villiers: "We can deduct points later."
In the same game, the hurly-burly was put on pause in the final quarter when Welsh referee Nigel Owens noticed that All Black replacement hooker Dane Coles did not appear on his official team sheet. Coles had already been on the field for Andrew Hore for 20 minutes when Owens sought enlightenment from the New Zealand officials.
Team manager Darren Shand sheepishly admitted to a typing error. The team announced to the media on Thursday included Coles, but on the day the replacement hooker on the official list was the injured Keven Mealamu. There were high-level discussions on the sideline involving Shand, Owens, Bok manager Ian Schwartz and All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw. In the end, it was the wise counsel of the Bok captain that saved the day. He said: "It doesn't matter, let's get on with the game. We can deduct points later."
Judicial miscarriage of the year: Romain Poite's red card
The French official banished Bismarck du Plessis from the field in the 42nd minute, ruining a contest world rugby had been looking forward to for months. Now we will never know whether the Boks had a real chance of recording their first win at Eden Park since 1937, although the five tries scored by the All Blacks at Ellis Park three weeks later suggested that many were deluded.
Poite's error-strewn display was the most obvious blemish in a generally bad year for officialdom. With two assistant referees, a television match official and a new dispensation that allows referees to make decisions from the big screen, it seems remarkable that so many wrong calls were made in high-profile games.
Added to which Jonathan Kaplan, one of the most respected arbiters in history, hung up his whistle at the end of the year.
Next year's stars:
Pieter-Steph du Toit: The gifted Sharks lock didn't get much game time on the end-of-season tour because of the presence of Bakkies Botha. The plan to match Du Toit and Eben Etzebeth was scuppered by injury to the Stormers man. If both can stay fit long enough at the same time, the idea is that they will fill the size 13 boots left vacant by Botha and Victor Matfield. After being under the radar for much of his career, Du Toit will be a marked man in 2014, at which point we will discover whether he is the real deal or not.
Cheslin Kolbe: The Western Province flyer has been released to the Springbok Sevens team for the next two weeks. Kolbe is a natural, with electric pace, great hips and an eye for a gap. All of these attributes were once amalgamated in the form of the great Breyton Paulse, and Kolbe shares another attribute with him: he is considered too small to make it at Springbok level. He needs a big year in Super Rugby to silence the doubters.
Jesse and Daniel Kriel: The Bulls signed the Kriel twins from Maritzburg College in 2012 and both have the X factor missing in the senior side's back line. Next year may be a year too soon for the pair, but so threadbare were the Bulls' resources in the Currie Cup that it would not be surprising to see them given a chance sooner rather than later. Daniel is a centre, Jesse a fullback and both can seriously play the game.