Second Phase

The year that was...

Mon, 31 Dec 2012 17:16
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We take a look at the highs and lows of 2012
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Sandwiched between a World Cup (2011) and the B&I Lions tour (2013) you would have expected 2012 to have been like a flat warm beer.

However, the year produced more peaks and troughs than a Disney World roller coaster ride.

While New Zealand moved smoothly from winning the World Cup on home soil to dominate 2012 - despite that blip in their final match against England and a draw against Australia - there were enough drama to ensure the year was anything but boring.

There was Wales - who went from Six Nations Grand Slam winners to year-end losers, seven defeats in a row.

Australia stumbled from one crisis to another, but were one of just two teams to get a 'positive' result against the mighty All Blacks - a draw.

South Africa and France made steady progress, both going unbeaten in their year-end Tests, Argentina made their debut in the Rugby Championship, Scotland slumped to an all-time low, despite a mid-year win over the Wallabies and England fluctuated between the sublime and ridiculous.

We take a look at the year that was!

Six Nations:

Wales seemed to build o their World Cup success, as they produced a third Six Nations Grand Slam in eight years.

Having reached the semifinals of the World Cup in New Zealand, the pressure was on Warren Gatland's side to deliver in the Six Nations - and they didn't disappoint. They might have been given a scare by a rejuvenated England - now under the stewardship of Stuart Lancaster - but they emerged as deserved winners of the Grand Slam.

Opening the Six Nations with a narrow win in Ireland, they sandwiched home wins over Scotland and Italy around only their second Twickenham success in 22 years.

They finished off with a 16-9 Cardiff victory over France, gaining a modicum of revenge for their one-point World Cup semi-final loss.

England's solid Six Nations, in which they beat France and hammered Ireland to finish second, earned stand-in coach Stuart Lancaster the job on a permanent basis.

Assistant Graham Rowntree said Lancaster had "dragged English rugby out of the gutter" following the off-field antics and dull play that marked their 2011 World Cup campaign.

England showed plenty of early promise, as they finished second in the competition - ahead of Ireland, France, Italy and Scotland.

Scotland's erratic form - which saw them take the Six Nations wooden spoon, then beat Australia in a midweek match in June, before then losing to Tonga in November - ultimately accounted for coach Andy Robinson.

European Cup:

Leinster made it back-to-back European Cup titles, with a one-sided rout of Ulster in the Final. The Irish province, with fullback Rob Kearney named as European Player of the Year, outscored rivals Ulster 42-14 in a five tries to one thrashing and Leinster captain Leo Cullen becoming the first person to raise the trophy three times.

The 2011–12 European Cup was the 17th season of the competition, with Leinster claiming their third title in four years.

Premiership

Harlequins secured their first Premiership title as they beat Leicester in a thrilling showpiece at Twickenham.

Quins produced a display brimming with passion to defeat Leicester Tigers 30-23 in the Final, as they came to the party by refusing to abandon their free-flowing style, and such adventure was rewarded as skipper Chris Robshaw lifted the trophy.

The 2011–12 Premiership was the 25th season of the top flight of the English domestic competitions. Quins also finished atop the table in the home-and-away season. The season's defending champions, Saracens, lost in the semifinals to Leicester.

Worcester Warriors were the newcomers for this season and they successfully avoided relegation. Newcastle Falcons finished on the bottom of the 2011–12 table and were relegated to the RFU Championship. The Falcons relegation was confirmed when London Welsh, who won the Championship, successfully appealed the decision of the Rugby Football Union that they did not meet the standards for promotion.

Pro12:

Ospreys denied Leinster the double by clinching the Pro12 crown. Shane Williams scored a sensational late double in his final club game and Dan Biggar added a touchline conversion to hand the Ospreys the title with a 31-30 win over Leinster at the RDS.

Leinster were the runaway winners of the regular season, having a 10 point cushion over the Ospreys in second. Other teams hoping to make the top four were Scarlets, Ulster and Cardiff, but their challenges fell short over the final weeks.

The top four were Leinster, Ospreys, Munster and Warriors in that order. Ospreys easily overcame Munster at home in the first semifinal in Swansea. Leinster beat Warriors in the RDS after giving up a strong lead.

After two years in the competition Aironi played their final match as their licence to compete was revoked by the FIR for financial reasons.

Super Rugby:

In the Southern Hemisphere's elite franchise competition, the Chiefs became the sixth team to win a Super Rugby title when they blew away the Sharks 37-6 in a one-sided Final.

The Chiefs won the New Zealand Conference, setting a number of franchise records along the way, while flyhalf Aaron Cruden was simply sensational. The Chiefs overcame the seven-time champions, the Crusaders, in the semifinal and than took advantage of the travel-weary Sharks.

The Sharks, despite losing, made history by becoming the first team to reach the Final after finishing outside the top four places on the standings. In the finals series they travelled to Brisbane to knock the defending champion Reds out in the elimination play-off, then beat the table-topping Stormers in the semifinal in Cape Town (thus handing the Chiefs a home Final), before travel fatigue got the better of them in the Grand Finale.

The 2012 Super Rugby season was the second season of the current 15-team format for the Super Rugby competition. It was the 17th season for the Southern Hemisphere's premier competition, which involves teams from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It had evolved from the Super 10 (1993 to 1995), to the Super 12 (1996 to 2005), then the Super 14 (2006 to 2010) and finally the Super 15 (which will be the number of teams till 2015).

The conference games took place every weekend from 24 February until 14 July (with a three-week break between rounds 15 and 16 for international matches), followed by the finals series, culminating in the grand final on 4 August.

The Chiefs, based in Hamilton, New Zealand, claimed their first-ever title in the competition's history, crushing the Durban-based Sharks 37–6 in the final held on 4 August at the Chiefs' home of Waikato Stadium.

The Lions, who finished last, have been eliminated from

Rugby Championship:

Led magnificently by indefatigable captain Richie McCaw, who is now to take a six-month sabbatical to recharge his batteries, the All Blacks won the newly-launched Rugby Championship that included Australia, South Africa and newcomers Argentina.

After ending their World Cup pain in 2011 New Zealand stamped their authority all over the competition.

Steve Hansen was named best coach, Dan Carter best player and the All Blacks best team - will have been scant consolation for a team who bucked the trend of recent World Cup winners by kicking on and improving in the year after their success.

Their brand of rugby was a step up even from that which they displayed in last year's triumph on home soil, mixing all the physicality expected of the All Blacks with a ruthless exploitation of turnover ball and an explosiveness out wide that few teams were able to stop.

The Championship's inclusion of Argentina was a particular success, and the Pumas' exposure to that level of rugby can only bode well for the sport in South America as a whole.

Victories were not so easy to come by for the Pumas, but it did not matter for they had won before a ball was even kicked in the competition - they realised a long-held dream by lining up alongside Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in new-look Southern Hemisphere championship and to their credit more than held their own.

It was without doubt the biggest development the game saw in the past 12 months. The decision to expand the footprint of the elite game was long overdue and the feast for the senses served up in Mendoza, Buenos Aires and Rosario and the clear enthusiasm evident in Argentina and on the part of their title rivals begs the question why it took to so long.

The Pumas' opening clash with South Africa in Cape Town represented the end of an epic battle for a place at rugby's top table having long been the only team among the world's leading nations denied a regular competition to cement the promise shown so often shown on the World Cup stage. Argentina have already shown signs that their exposure to such quality will enhance their development and status and the sport as a whole should be applauded for embracing a new continent where new fans, experiences and possibly untold riches await.

The 2012 Rugby Championship kicked off on 18 August with New Zealand defeating Australia and finished on 6 October.

In addition to the Rugby Championship trophy, the winner of games played between Australia and New Zealand also go toward determining the winner of the Bledisloe Cup each year. Similarly, the Freedom Cup is contested between New Zealand and South Africa, and the Mandela Challenge Plate between Australia and South Africa.

Currie Cup:

Western Province ended an 11-year wait for Currie Cup glory when they beat the Sharks 18-25 in the 2012 Currie Cup Final in Durban.

Province last won the domestic title when they beat the Sharks in the 2001 final in Cape Town.

Province centre Juan de Jongh scored the only try in a thrilling, high-paced Final, while flyhalf Demetri Catrakilis contributed 17 points with the boot, including two drops-goals.

Last year's winners the Golden Lions were knocked out of the Currie Cup by the eventual winners, WP.

The 2012 Currie Cup Premier Division was the 73rd season in the competition since it started in 1889 and was contested from 11 August to 27 October 2012.

NPC:

It was a record fifth NPC Cup-winning season for Canterbury, while their key points scorer Tom Taylor broke the record for most points scored in a Final, 23, when passing the 20 scored by Andrew Mehrtens and Daniel Carter.

Like a thief in the night, Canterbury scrumhalf Andrew Ellis stole the ball from Auckland's side of an attacking ruck five metres from his line to give his side the advantage in their 31-18 Final win in Christchurch.

The 2012 NPC is in its 36th season, the seventh since the competition reconstruction in 2006, the second under the new Premiership/Championship format. The top seven teams form the Premiership and the bottom seven the Championship.

Counties Manukau, who won the NPC Championship will receive automatic promotion to the Premiership, replacing Hawke's Bay, who are relegated to the Championship after a single season in the Premiership.

June and November internationals:

While the All Blacks went unbeaten throughout the year, with the exception of an 18-all draw against Australia in a Bledisloe Cup encounter in late October, they finally came a cropper in their final match of the calendar year.

England ended the World Cup champions' 20-Test winning sequence with a famous 38-21 victory at Twickenham - it was also the Kiwis' first loss on their end-of-year northern tour in a decade.

The All Blacks moved on from their three-Test mid-year series victory over Ireland and their successful Championship to claim three straightforward wins over Scotland, Italy and Wales in their year-end Tests.

But they met their match in a motivated England. When the All Blacks ran out at Twickenham on December 1 within three games of matching their record 23-match unbeaten sequence and, with only that draw with Australia blotting their copybook, they were being touted as the best team of all time.

But in an afternoon that encapsulated the tantalising unpredictability and eternal appeal of international sport, they fell to their second-worst defeat, 38-21, against England.

Australia were unable to match their neighbours on a regular basis but they bow to nobody when it comes to resilience.

Ravaged by injuries and humiliated 33-6 by France, the Wallabies climbed off the canvas to end their season with a hat-trick of wins over England, Italy and Wales.

Stopping the New Zealand juggernaut (that draw) was also an impressive display a month after they had been whacked 31-8 by South Africa.

Heyneke Meyer's first year in charge of the Springboks produced a home series win over England and a November three-game European clean sweep in which they won every one of their line-out throws.

Argentina showed the value of competing in the Rugby Championship - against New Zealand, South Africa and Australia - when they had too much class for a fast-fading Welsh team in November.

Coach Santiago Phelan and his squad, always increasing in depth and quality, will have learned a lot, though they looked exhausted in their final November match in Dublin when they were thrashed 46-24 by Ireland.

New Zealand and Argentina's anti-climatic finales were as nothing, though, compared with Wales's precipitous fall.

Having followed up their run to the World Cup semifinals with their third Six Nations grand slam in eight years, they lost their next seven games, including yet another to their Cardiff nemeses Samoa.

That defeat and the heartbreaking last-minute loss to Australia, their fourth of the year, had calamitous consequences because Wales dropped into the third tier of seeds for the 2015 World Cup in England, and subsequently into a group with Australia and the hosts.

Even getting out of the pool stage looks a big ask and should Wales get through in second place they would be likely to find South Africa and then potentially New Zealand in their way.

It was a strange year for Scotland, who finished bottom of the Six Nations after losing every game, beat Australia, Fiji and Samoa on their June tour then lost at home to the All Blacks, Springboks and Tonga.

That last defeat was the final straw for coach Andy Robinson, who resigned.

Coach Declan Kidney was predicted to be close to departing Ireland after five successive defeats, including a 60-0 June mauling by New Zealand. However, the demolition job on Argentina in their final November test secured their World Cup seeding and, in debutant wing Craig Gilroy, they may have uncovered a gem.

Samoa and Tonga struck blows for the Tier Three nations - and while it might not have been good for Wales and Scotland, it was great for the sport as a whole. For rugby to grow globally, it needs these nations to be as competitive as possible. Samoa repeated their 1991 and 1999 wins over Wales with a 26-19 victory, while Tonga toppled Scotland 21-15.

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