The Springboks lost an unprecedented eight games in a year; the Lions all but meekly surrendered in the Super Rugby final; the EP Kings and Western Province were liquidated; and SA Rugby expects to make losses from this financial year and the next.
Quite where one goes sifting for the obligatory positives after that kind of year is a mystery, but it’s not quite the kind of doom everyone imagines it to be. If anything is true in life, it is that things are never as great or as desolate as they seem.
As they say in the classics, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Failing which, we could always look at it as one of those situations where things can only get better. Looking around, there are actually more than enough signs that things can improve next year, funnily enough starting with the administrators.
Given how far they have let things slide, complacency has to be a massive part of where they went wrong. But there’s nothing like an abysmal Bok team, being broke, having no interest from sponsors, a second-rate domestic competition and a hostile public to focus the mind.
So when 2017 comes around, few of rugby’s administrators will have anything to be overconfident about.
It’s an attitude that has been made clear by SA Rugby’s decision to open provincial unions to privatisation, which will ultimately force a majority of their number to keep their positions on the strength of their usefulness, as opposed to the ability to grease palms.
The failings of 2016 have done what nothing and nobody else could by forcing rugby administrators to be problem solvers instead of freeloaders.
The Blitzboks’ response to their underwhelming Olympic campaign is another lesson we can learn from. Some might query a bronze medal being described as a disappointment – and while it was SA’s first rugby medal at the Olympics, Neil Powell and his men went there as gold medal contenders.
Their reaction to that – which has been informed by clarity of purpose, urgency, intensity and clinical execution in their start to the new World Rugby Sevens Series – is a case in point on how to learn from your mistakes.
Believe it or not, our often maligned domestic coaches are another reason we should be reasonably chipper about SA rugby’s prospects.
While the administrators have dug in their heels about keeping things the same, the young coaches have been extolling the virtues of changing the way we play rugby to catch up with the rest of the world.
Yes they’re all a bit inexperienced, but Johan Ackermann, Franco Smith, Nollis Marais, Robbie Fleck, Robert du Preez et al all have a contribution to make.
By perfectly marrying the strengths of SA rugby with heads-up rugby by his players, Ackermann has already shown us by guiding the Lions to the Super Rugby final.
Smith has introduced something approaching total rugby in the Cheetahs; Marais has tight forwards offloading better than backs at the Bulls; Du Preez is busy assembling an unheralded coaching squad which may yet yield results; and one hopes Fleck’s recruitment of skills coach, New Zealander Paul Feeney, will have the desired results.
The moral of that story is they’re all trying different ways to advance themselves, their coaching teams and indeed their sides, the mentality of which can only filter into the national team, especially with the new intent to collaborate and pool resources.
And finally, it’s a fallacy that South African players haven’t the requisite skills to compete against the best in the world. If there is a problem, there is an over-reliance on teaching structures at the expense of skills in our coaching.
When you have players like Seabelo Senatla, RG Snyman, Ox Nche, Leolin Zas and Nico Lee coming through in your system, you should be excited by their presence rather than apprehensive because they’re inexperienced.
Rugby’s redemption lies in a mental shift, not a reinvention of the wheel.