DM168

SPORTS TEAM OF THE YEAR

Winner: Springboks; Runner-up: Italy national football team

The Springboks against England could be a regular sight in a revamped Six Nations from 2024 if SA Rugby's dream is realised. (Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images)
By Craig Ray
26 Dec 2021 0

Despite setbacks during the most challenging year in Springbok rugby history, the Boks regained the number one spot.

A casual glance at the Springboks’ record in 2021 might lead to some debate as to why they have been named our team of the year. They played 13 Test matches and lost five. In other words, they only won 63% of the time.

But, sometimes, such broad statistics are misleading because that simple metric only tells a small tale of the most challenging year in Springbok rugby history.

First, from the moment the Springboks won the final of Rugby World Cup (RWC) 2019, their attention moved to playing and winning the 2021 series against the British & Irish Lions.

It only comes around every 12 years and competing in a Lions series is considered the single biggest Test rugby achievement outside of a World Cup. In a perfect world, it is a monumental challenge – but the lead-up to the 2021 series took place in anything but a perfect world.

The Covid-19 pandemic scuppered the Springboks’ entire 2020 season, which meant losing 12 Tests-worth of player and team development. No one would have guessed in the afterglow of winning RWC 2019 that, barring one Test against Georgia, the Lions would be their next opponents.

Before their July Test against Georgia, the Boks had not played a match in 20 months.

Never before, and hopefully never again, will a squad of players and coaches have to endure what the Boks of 2021 suffered while still performing at an exceptional level.

In all, the Springbok squad spent 18 weeks in various bio-bubbles, which came on top of various bubbles for players at club level. To say it was mentally challenging on the players would be an understatement.

In a normal year, the 2021 calendar would have been one of the toughest in Bok history. It was scheduled to include 14 Tests, which is a staggering amount.

The Lions duly arrived as scheduled, after a reshuffle of the touring dates because of the rise of the Delta Covid variant. The Boks had scheduled two warm-up Tests against Georgia before the Lions challenge. But, after winning 40-11, the second Georgia Test was cancelled as Covid cut a swathe through the Bok camp. Georgia coach Levan Maisashvili would fight for his life for months in a SA hospital as a consequence.

Following that game, Bok coach Jacques Nienaber, captain Siya Kolisi and 11 other players either contracted Covid-19 or were in isolation. It disrupted preparations significantly and, by the time of the crucial first Test at an empty Cape Town Stadium, the Boks were underdone. They lost 22-17 in a game marred by several bizarre decisions by Australian referee Nic Berry, which would become the subject of a now infamous Rassie Erasmus dissection.

The upshot, though, was that the Boks needed to become the first team since Australia on home soil in 2001 to lose the first Test of the series and go on to win it. After the controversy over Erasmus’s video, the Boks produced a stellar second half of the second Test to win it 27-9, scoring 21 unanswered second-half points. In the process they lost star flank Pieter-Steph du Toit and scrumhalf Faf de Klerk to season-ending injuries.

But in the deciding third Test, star wing Cheslin Kolbe, who – a few weeks later – was also ruled out for the rest of the season, scored a brilliant try with deft footwork to set the stage for a dramatic climax.

It was 37-year-old veteran Morné Steyn, making his first Test appearance in five years, who stepped off the bench and slotted the match- and series-winning penalty. His kick three minutes from time gave the Boks a 19-16 victory and rekindled memories of Steyn’s similar heroics 12 years earlier against the Lions at Loftus Versfeld.

Although the series was a tight arm-wrestle, with plenty of sniping off the field, winning it was the Boks’ major priority. The remainder of the year was used to build depth and experience, establish combinations, and grow the attacking game plan.

They ended up beating the All Blacks at the Gold Coast for another significant scalp and three of their five defeats were with the last kick of the game. It was a season that could have been better in terms of results with a little more luck, but it was also a year of success.

Despite the challenges, the Boks finished 2021 deservedly as the number one-ranked team in the world. DM168

The Italy national football team celebrates after winning the Uefa Euro 2020 final between Italy and England in London, Britain, on 11 July 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Catherine Ivill / POOL)

RUNNER-UP: ITALY NATIONAL FOOTBALL TEAM

The Italian football team has had an impressive year. They won the Uefa Euro 2020 title (held in 2021) after being undefeated in the tournament and beating England 3-2 on penalties in the final at Wembley Stadium in London.

Italy rose from bitter lows to clinch the Euros title. Their lowest point came in 2018 when they failed to qualify for the World Cup – the first time in 60 years that they had not made it. Roberto Mancini, a former Manchester City manager, took over the reins as manager of the Azzurri in May 2018, eventually leading the team to European delight on 11 July.

The veteran Juventus centre-back duo of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci formed the foundation on which the Italian success was built.

Skipper Chiellini led from behind as the 37-year-old centre back, along with the rest of the Italian defence, did not concede a goal in the group stage matches. In fact, they did not concede more than one goal in any of their matches in the knockout stage of the tournament.

Italy scored many of their goals from their fast and incisive counter-attacking play. They won their group stage matches 3-0, 3-0 and 1-0 against Turkey, Switzerland and Wales, respectively.

Italy performed greater than the sum of their parts with no real “superstars” among their ranks. Despite their lack of a talisman, they scored the joint highest number of goals in the tournament, with 13 goals across their seven matches.

Italy had seven different scorers. Ciro Immobile, Matteo Pessina, Manuel Locatelli, Federico Chiesa and Lorenzo Insigne each scored two goals.

In the final against England at Wembley, Juventus defender Bonucci – at 34 years and 71 days old – became the oldest scorer in a Euro final.

Italy went on to win the final 3-2 on penalties to claim their first Euro title in 53 years. – Keanan Hemmonsbey/DM168

***

DAILY MAVERICK PERSONS OF THE YEAR

Every year, Daily Maverick puts its mind to the question of who we should recognise in our annual Persons of the Year categories.

In the past, these decisions have been made after a bare-knuckle editorial brawl, but this year, we decided to do things a little differently. We had the bare-knuckle editorial brawl, but simply to arrive at a shortlist of nominees in each category. Using a new reader engagement tool called Hearken, we asked our online readers to cast their votes on who they think deserves the final nod. We also gave readers the option to choose their own candidate in any category in case they thought we had neglected anyone more worthy. The results were both expected and surprising.

On the whole, readers agreed with our shortlisted candidates, with a few exceptions. We had not considered Greta Thunberg as a candidate for International Person of the Year, but so many readers nominated her that she earned enough mentions to be a runner-up in that category.

Many objected to us only focusing on singers for our Artist of the Year and objected to the predominance of foreign singers in the category. Quite a few readers were critical of us leaving out African women and female contenders in general.

The journalists at Daily Maverick were mentioned several times as nominees for different categories of People of the Year – ah, thanks for the love, guys, but this time around we wanted to cast our net outside our inner circle.

The more than 800 readers who voted totally exceeded our expectations, because this was the first time we have opened People of the Year to readers’ votes.

Below are the categories. Read about the winners and runners-up in various categories below.

  • South African Person of the Year – a person who has had the broadest or most significant impact on the country as a whole.
  • Africa Person of the Year – a person who has made an outstanding contribution on the African continent this year.
  • International Person of the Year – a person who has had broad international impact or made an outstanding contribution this year.
  • South African Villain of the Year – there was no shortage of suggestions in this self-explanatory category…
  • International Villain of the Year – as above, but drawn from foreign fields.
  • South African Businessperson of the Year – not necessarily the person who made the biggest profit, but someone whose influence went beyond the balance sheets.
  • Community Champion of the Year – someone uplifting, defending and representing ordinary South Africans, often against all odds.
  • South African Polluter of the Year – individuals and entities which have succeeded in further dirtying our environment this year.
  • Our Burning Planet Heroes of the Year – the green warriors fighting for our planet’s survival.
  • South African Youth Champion of the Year – young people working to improve the lot of other young people.
  • Sportsperson of the Year – a sportsperson whose positive impact has been felt either on or off the field.
  • Sports Team of the Year – a team that has stood out from the rest in 2021 either on or off the field.
  • Artist of the Year – a hitmaker whose musical or social influence has towered above others.
  • Moegoe of the Year – someone whose behaviour perhaps falls short of Villain of the Year, but who has in some way acted idiotically.
  • Grinch of the Year – someone who qualifies as a spoilsport or killjoy. – Rebecca Davis/DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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