Rugby World Cup 2007
The large South African media contingent in Marseille for their World Cup quarterfinal against Fiji had smiles a mile wide even before their sunny Sunday afternoon clash at Stade-Velodrome. With the All Blacks eliminated in shocking fashion in Cardiff the night before, the tournament, they figured, was now theirs for the taking.
They were right, of course.
The All Blacks were the only team the in-form Springboks feared in the knockout stages of the 2007 tournament. And when Graham Henry's men collapsed to an inexplicable defeat to the out-of-sorts French at the Millennium Stadium in the weekend's second quarterfinal - their worst ever World Cup exit - you would have thought the Boks had already sealed the deal.
In the minds of the sharper members of the South African press corps they already had. Sure, they still had to get by Fiji - as it turned out that proved almost a little too tricky for comfort - and then Argentina and England, but with the Boks game operating close to full efficiency, it was felt that pathway was infinitely preferable to anything containing a black jersey.
Sure enough the ominous Springbok machine, which had waltzed through pool play undefeated (including a 36-0 slapping of England), found little to trouble them in a finals field suddenly shorn the All Blacks.
The Boks survived an anxious moment or two against a gallant Fijian side in Marseille to win that quarterfinal 37-20. When the scores had been locked 20-20 heading into the final quarter the 55,000 fans in attendance dared ponder whether the biggest upset in Cup history was on the cards.
But the South Africans steadied, after they nearly fell behind to a fabulous Fijian attack, and went back to the game they know best. Their forwards took over, dominated possession and tightened things up considerably. Further tries to Juan Smith and Butch James iced the match and the Boks were through to a final four bereft of their fellow southern hemisphere heavyweights (the Wallabies had also fallen a day earlier to England).
From there it was all too easy for Jake White's men. They breezed past tournament upstarts Argentina 37-13 in the semifinal, scoring four tries including a pair to wonder wing Bryan Habana who equalled Jonah Lomu's record haul of eight for the tournament. A perfect kicking display from Percy Montgomery helped the South African cause and suddenly only England stood between them and their second global crown.
It was remarkable that England had made it as far as their third World Cup final, for after their pool stage hiding by the Boks they very nearly imploded under a mountain of media criticism. But somehow Brian Ashton steadied the ship, they slipped uneasily into the quarters, took care of the Wallabies with an outstanding defensive display, and then won a typically grinding semifinal 14-9 over the spent hosts who could not reproduce their Cardiff magic.
But the reality was the South African journos has been spot on. There was no one left capable of beating the Boks once the All Blacks were eliminated, and the tournament's showpiece match proved a dour, tryless affair as White's team took few chances en route to a 15-6 victory.
Though it was arguably the most boring final in the event's history - critics later labelled it a turgid tournament dominated too much by the boot - that should not diminish from the excellence of the Springboks who showed they were capable of winning with whatever style the occasion demanded. In Habana they had the player of the tournament, and with their formidable pack - led by John Smit and the redoubtable Victor Matfield - classy halfback Fourie du Preez and a backline prepared to chase hard and make their tackles, they deservedly matched their 1995 efforts at home by lifting the Webb Ellis Cup.
If the 2007 RWC was a triumphant celebration for White's Boks, it was an ignominious failure for Henry's All Blacks who suffered their earliest ever exit at the global event when they were pipped 20-18 by the French in a controversial Cariff matchup.
The worries heading in that the All Blacks had had things all too easy in a pool they could - and at times did - sleepwalk through proved on the money when Henry's men produced a stuttering effort that eventually came up short against the French.
Mixing passion and purpose to, not for the first time, absorb a heap of All Black pressure, les Bleus eventually stunned the title favourites with a fabulous comeback from 0-13 down.
Sure, some questionable decisions from referee Wayne Barnes went against the New Zealanders (most notably a missed forward pass in the leadup to Yannick Jauzion's match-winning try) but how the All Blacks never won with a mountain of possession (77 per cent by one count) and an array of opportunities merely added to their legend as World Cup chokers.
Ironically, in the aftermath of the worst ever All Blacks showing at a World Cup the coaching team that had brought "reconditioning" and "rotation" into the Kiwi rugby vernacular were controversially retained for the first time in the team's history. Only time would tell whether that was an inspired decision, or an insipid one.