Year of the rookie
Michael de Vries takes a look at a host of talented young players who burst onto the scene.
The year 2012 has seen a host of talented young players burst onto the international rugby scene; we take a look at the best rookies of the year.
The year after a World Cup often signals the passing of different generations, with many sides in a 'rebuilding' phase, and 2012 was no exception with a few young players making a massive impact on the big stage.
It is one thing to stand out at age-group level on your way to the top, but the players we have selected have all shown their class by adjusting quickly to the demands of Test rugby and imposing themselves at the highest level.
So without further ado, here are the rookies who made us sit up and take note this year.
Those who were worrying about who would fill Bakkies Botha's boots in the Springbok No.4 jersey had their concerns eased by the rapid rise of this behemoth from the Cape. Etzebeth's hulking frame ensured that he caught the eye in 2011 playing Varsity Cup for UCT and in Dawie Theron's junior Springbok side, and he had little difficulty stepping up to the next level this year. It is quite rare for a tight forward to blossom at such an young age, but Etzebeth has defied the accepted wisdom by stamping his authority as an enforcer of the highest quality at both Super Rugby and Test level. Whilst he may have come in for some criticism for carrying the ball too often and not hitting enough rucks, his value in the set-pieces is undeniable and he certainly makes his presence felt on defence. At just 21 Etzebeth seems to have the rugby world at his feet, and his biggest challenge now will be to build on a remarkable break-out season.
Hooper is the latest player to roll off the Wallaby openside flank production line, and took the gap presented by David Pocock's knee injury incredibly well. The dynamic loose forward was one of the stars of Jake White's competitive Brumbies side, terrorising the opposition with his seemingly limitless energy. Whilst his skills at the breakdown are very valuable, Hooper's greatest strength is his work-rate which sees him top the tackle count consistently and score more than his fair share of tries. Having signed for the Waratahs, Hooper will be intent on continuing his encouraging form under the guidance of Michael Cheika in Sydney.
With former New Zealand Under-20 skipper TJ Perenara sidelined through injury the nippy Highlanders scrumhalf with the bullet pass grabbed the opportunity to establish himself in the All Blacks side. Although facing competition from the combative Tawera Kerr-Barlow and veterans Piri Weepu and Andy Ellis, Smith made the No.9 jersey his own with a series of convincing performances. His pace around the fringes makes him a considerable threat with ball in hand, whilst the speed and quality of his distribution makes life much easier for his backline. He will face some stiff competition for his spot from both Kerr-Barlow and Perenara in 2013, but they will have their work cut out for them if they are to unseat the All Black incumbent.
Few players begin their professional careers with as much hype and expectation as the former Grey College star. The Cheetahs playmaker started with a weighty reputation thanks to his achievements as a schoolboy, and proceeded to give everyone a taste of what all of the fuss was about. His pinpoint goal-kicking saw him scale the points-scoring charts in Super Rugby, and impressive tries against the Crusaders and Highlanders showed that he is far more than just a reliable boot. That try against the Highlanders also saw him sidelined with a shoulder injury, which he recovered from in time to make his Springbok debut in the Rugby Championship. Another injury soon afterwards has raised questions of how injury-prone the committed young flyhalf will be in the coming years, but there are few that deny his considerable potential.
There were more than a few raised eyebrows when Farrell was nominated as IRB player of the year, but his composed performance in England's victory over the All Blacks showed exactly why he is rated so highly. Although his father is the assistant coach, there is no doubt that Farrell deserves his place in the starting line-up and looks set for a long Test career. Having made his professional debut for Saracens at the tender age of 17, Farrell is used to dealing with significant pressure which is a skill he will have to draw on as England coach Stuart Lancaster looks to build a team around him ahead of the 2015 World Cup.
As Test debut's go, scoring a hat-trick against Ireland is a fairly solid start, and Savea did not slow down from there either, crossing the tryline 12 times in his nine Tests so far. The 2010 IRB Junior World player of the year and former New Zealand Sevens ace made his presence known in a prolific Super Rugby campaign for the Hurricanes, using his balance of pace and power to get over the whitewash regularly and force his way into All Blacks contention. There are some doubts about his ability under the high ball, but there are few who can match his finishing ability, and at full steam there is not much that can stop this freight train who will have to prove that he can survive as a marked man next year.
The Six Nations might have been one to forget for France, but one major positive was the emergence of Wesley Fofana who scored a try in each of his first four Tests. The explosive centre, who is also comfortable on the wing, has shown that he has both the speed and physicality to take on the best. Nicknamed 'Cheetah' in France for his speed off the mark, Fofana has what it takes to become a top-class backline player, and should be a key player for France in 2013.
By Michael de Vries
* Did Michael miss anybody? Who do you rate the best?