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Sun, 16 Dec 2012 09:19
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Springbok second row prodigy Eben Etzebeth cleans up
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The year was full of spectacular highs and disappointing lows; we name and shame the best and worst in our 2012 rugby365 Awards.  

New Zealand and Wales ruled their respective hemispheres, new stars announced themselves on the international stage, fading veterans reignited their careers and big-name players brought down the curtain on their careers.

We witnessed an instant classic at Twickenham, a long-standing world record was nearly broken, new Test coaches had their first taste of the pressure of coaching at the highest level and some spectacular tries were scored.

2012 was also the rise of a certain gargantic second row prodigy …

The year was not without controversy, though; the Quade Cooper saga dominated the headlines, a flawed Super Rugby Conference system was introduced, the Johannesburg-based Lions were kicked out of Super Rugby to accommodate the Southern Kings, an unacceptable amount of farcical disciplinary decisions marred the sport and a battle about the future of European club competitions lingers on

Here then, are our big winners and losers of 2012.

Team of the Year: Chiefs
Narrowly pipping the All Blacks, the Chiefs surprised all and sundry to clinch their first ever Super Rugby title. The sheer length of the campaign (24 weeks), level of competition, intensity and frenetic pace at which the game is played makes Super Rugby the most demanding tournament in the game. The Chiefs, having suffered an exodus of players including Mils Muliaina, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Stephen Donald and lost coach Ian Foster after eight years at the helm, were written off as also-rans. Rookie coach Dave Rennie and his charges, however, had other ideas and a perfect mix of clinical forward play and a dangerous running game saw them being crowned unlikely champions.  

Player of the Year: Eben Etzebeth
Kieran Read, Richie McCaw and Frederic Michalak made a strong case for the coveted gong but ultimately the honour fell to young Springbok lock Eben Etzebeth. The 21-year-old burst onto the international scene following a stellar debut Super Rugby season at the Stormers and made the step up to Test rugby with aplomb. That he made every Team of the Tournament/Month we selected that he qualified for is a testament to the consistency he showed throughout the year.
 
Forward of the Year: Eben Etzebeth
The SARU Young Player of the Year had to fend off the challenges of Kieran Read, Richie McCaw, Nathan Sharpe, Six Nations Player of the Championship Dan Lydiate, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and Springbok team mates Jannie du Plessis and Francois Louw to pick up his second award.  

Back of the Year: Frederic Michalak
Recalling Michalak after he had spent five years in the international wilderness was an inspired decision by France coach Philippe Saint-Andre, one the French phenom turned into a masterstroke. He breathed new life into Les Bleus with his inventive play-making skills and unerring boot and crucially, found the consistency he lacked the majority of his career. The 30-year-old version of Michalak was the most cunning and dependable version we have ever seen and provided us with the fairytale story of the year.

Young Player of the Year: Eben Etzebeth
In this ultra-competitive category, Etzebeth pipped Springbok team mates Marcel Coetzee, Johan Goosen and Elton Jantjies, Baby Boks Raymond Rhule and IRB Junior Player of the Year Jan Serfontein, Aaron Cruden, Owen Farrell, Michael Hooper and Craig Gilroy to the award.   

Coach of the Year: Steve Hansen
In his debut season as head coach, Hansen simultaneously ensured that the All Blacks suffered no World Cup hangover and took the team to new heights in his pursuit of perfection. Wales mentor Warren Gatland and Chiefs coach Dave Rennie were the other leading candidates for the award.

Match of the Year: England v New Zealand
The classic clash ended the year on the ultimate high as an England side coming off back-to-back home defeats to the Wallabies and Springboks defied the odds and snapped the All Blacks’ 20-match unbeaten streak with a record-breaking 38-21 win. Regarded as the greatest performance ever at Twickenham, the underdog hosts dominated all facets of play and scored three scintillating tries.  

Try of the Year: Bryan Habana against New Zealand
It’s only fitting that the best try of the year materialised in a match between rugby’s greatest rivals. Habana was on fire in the inaugural Rugby Championship, scoring six tries in six Tests, and none was more breathtaking than his chip-and-chase effort from a line-out against the All Blacks in Dunedin. It was a thing of beauty.  
 
Team Try of the Year: New Zealand (Liam Messam) against Wales
As only the All Blacks can, they scored a scorching try from inside their 22 that bamboozled the Welsh. Julian Savea tapped an up-and-under back to Israel Dagg who beat three would-be defenders and offloaded in the tackle back to Savea. The wing stormed down the field and beat one before he was taken to ground on the attacking 22-metre line. He popped the ball to Aaron Cruden who set up a phase from where the ball was shifted to the right through six pair of hands for Liam Messam to round off in the corner.    

Disappointment of the Year: Wales in November
Wales had a definite year of two half. They continued their great form of the 2011 World Cup at the start of the year to achieve a Six Nations Grand Slam and were rather unlucky to lose the closely contested series against the Wallabies, with just 11 points separating the sides over three Tests. From there, however, they imploded in no uncertain terms as they slumped to consecutive defeats to Argentina (26-12), Samoa (26-19), New Zealand (33-10) and Australia (14-12) in the year-end internationals.

Where can we buy a win: Scotland
The Scots picked up the wooden spoon in a winless Six Nations campaign and lost all three of their end-of-year Tests, including a historic 21-15 defeat to Tonga in the season finale. Their only three victories in 11 Tests came against Australia (9-6) in atrocious conditions, Fiji (37-25) and Samoa (17-16).   

Breaking the biggest trophy drought: Western Province
Following another near perfect Super Rugby campaign in which the Stormers finished the regular season at the top of the table only to lose to the Sharks in the semifinals, Western Province would get sweet revenge. The men from Cape Town scored a last-gasp try to sink the Golden Lions in the semifinals and beat the heavily favoured Sharks in Durban to end an 11-year trophy drought.   
 
Biggest chokers: Sharks
Look up the word chokers in the sports dictionary and you will find the Sharks and Proteas. For all their endeavour and Springbok-laden squad, the Sharks can’t buy a win in a final. The Durban side reached the Super Rugby and Currie Cup finals in 2012 and went down in both, losing 37-6 to the Chiefs and 25-18 to Western Province at home.   

Did you see that: Eben Etzebeth bulldozes Bismarck du Plessis
It’s the Super Rugby semifinal between the Stormers and the Sharks at Newlands. Five minutes into the all-South African affair, the ball goes out to Eben Etzebeth standing off. Bismarck du Plessis rushes up the line, looking to smash the youngster. Instead, Etzebeth sends the Sharks and Springbok hardman flying backwards and leaves Du Plessis needing medical attention.

Is it over yet: Quade Cooper saga
The drama that ensued after Quade Cooper’s Twitter tirade and public attacks on the Wallaby set-up and gameplan and the uncertainty over his playing future dragged on longer than Dexter and overshadowed the actual rugby being played on the pitch.

Hero of the Year: Nathan Sharpe/Jannie du Plessis
These two war horses pushed their bodies to the limit for club and country like no other, Nathan Sharpe twice postponing retirement before finally riding into the sunset and Jannie du Plessis playing a total of 34 matches.    

Villain of the Year: Andrew Hore
The All Black hooker’s thuggish cheap shot on Bradley Davies that left the Welsh lock unconscious left a giant black mark on the player, the team and the sport. The five-week suspension he received was as condemnable as the act itself.   

Best Refereeing Decision of the Year: Willem Alberts’ try against England (Nigel Owens)
Willem Alberts scored what England lock Geoff Parling described as the “flukiest try I have ever seen in the history of rugby" after a box kick from Ben Youngs ricocheted back towards the England try-line off JP Pietersen. Tom Wood fumbled the loose ball forwards and Willem Alberts, who many felt was in an off-side position, pounced to score. Nigel Owens was the man tasked with the difficult decision, and the Welsh referee got it spot on. As Paul Dobson, recipient of the IRB Referee Award for Distinguished Service 2012, explains, “They [the officials] decided that Juandré Kruger had not knocked on and that, because JP Pietersen had not kicked the ball, Willem Alberts was not subject to the ’10-metre law’ and that he could therefore be put onside when Tom Wood put up his hand and played the ball. Alberts then grounded the ball properly.” Hailing the decision, Dobson says, “It is possibly a unique occurrence and so much happened in a flash that could have left the referee and his helpers bewildered but they were calm and quickly came to the right decision. Their calm and ability to process so many possibilities accurately was remarkable.”  

By Quintin van Jaarsveld

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