READER REPORT:

The year of the rugby hangover

DAVID LIM
Last updated 11:30 17/12/2012

Coming in off the long run

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CORY JANE: Who would make your starting line up from the 2012 rugby season?

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With only days to go to Christmas, it's once again that time of the year to look back on the year of rugby that has been.

It was always going to be hard for 2012 to live up to the drama and euphoria of 2011 - the word hangover comes to mind in the year after every Rugby World Cup. And at certain points of the season, it did feel as though the New Zealand rugby public was still suffering from overload in the aftermath of that epic October night in Auckland.

Even the rugby on show seemed to suffer a bit. The Six Nations was thrilling as usual even if the rugby wasn't quite of the highest quality with Wales winning their second Grand Slam in four years, beating France in Cardiff in an epic final weekend decider. However, Les Bleus had the last laugh later in the year with a terrific autumn campaign to solidify their position as one of the top seeds at the next RWC in England, while Wales slumped to a winless seven-game streak and ended up in the pool of death.

The rugby played on the other side of the world wasn't be much better. The All Blacks won all their games but it had to be said they did it without going in to top gear until the away games in Buenos Aires and Johannesburg. The game in the grandiose La Plata Stadium was, in my opinion, the best performance by the world champion All Blacks in 2012.

The Wallabies were beset by injury, the Springboks were in rebuild mode and Los Pumas were always going to be a bit raw going in to their first Rugby Championship. Nevertheless the potential is there for the Rugby Championship to be very exciting in years to come now that Argentina has added its flair to the contest.

The All Blacks are in a good shape and continue to refresh their squad with young talent. Retallick, Romano, Savea, Smith, Coles were superb as they made their All Black debuts. However, the thrashing by England in that last game will leave a sour taste for the summer and a lot more thinking for the coaches to do in to keep the All Blacks fresh and on top of the world of rugby. The 2013 season should be tougher with the Boks, Wallabies and Pumas likely to be much stronger than they were this year.

While the international game was a bit of a mixed bag this year, the domestic game was a different story, with the Super Rugby championship providing plenty of excitement in its new format. The international break failed to stop the Chiefs momentum as they deservedly won their maiden championship. It was a remarkable achievement for first-year coach Dave Rennie, who has turned the Chiefs from perennial bridesmaids in to probably New Zealand's Super Rugby powerhouse. What is striking is that the Chiefs have plenty of young players who can only get better in years to come under the former New Zealand Under-20 coach. It is up to the Crusaders, Hurricanes, Blues and Highlanders to catch up to the men from the Mooloo now.

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The NPC also provided plenty of great rugby with interest alive in the provinces. The format will be tweaked slightly for 2013 with less of the unpopular midweek games. The lower divisions of provincial rugby provided the romantic stories of the year - East Coast staging a comeback of the ages against Wanganui to win the Meads Cup, and Counties rolling back the years with some scintillating rugby to earn promotion back to the top division against Otago. Both Counties and Otago were superbly coached by two former All Blacks backs - Tana Umaga and Tony Brown respectively - and it showed in the thrilling attacking rugby they played.

At the top end of the NPC, Canterbury's dominance of the game continued and this Canterbury side must surely rank alongside the great Auckland team of the 1980s and early 1990s, as the greatest provincial side ever.

So, who makes my starting team of the year?

1. Cian Healy, Ireland

2. Bismarck du Plessis, South Africa

3. Dan Cole, England

4. Sam Whitelock, New Zealand

5. Richie Gray, Scotland

6. Dan Lydiate, Wales

7. Richie McCaw, New Zealand

8. Kieran Read, New Zealand

9. Mike Phillips, Wales

10. Dan Carter, New Zealand

11. Bryan Habana, South Africa

12. Ma'a Nonu, New Zealand

13. Conrad Smith, New Zealand

14. Cory Jane, New Zealand

15. Israel Dagg, New Zealand

Game of the season: Highlanders 36-33 Cheetahs. One of the greatest comebacks ever in Super Rugby with the Highlanders seemingly out of the game at 30-9 in Bloemfontein but an injury to flyhalf Johan Goosen and quick tries by the Highlanders saw the tide completely turn in this game/ Chris Noakes sealed a remarkable comeback with a 79th minute penalty.

Try of the season: Bryan Habana v New Zealand. Habana at his best and a great treat for the crowd at the first ever All Blacks game at the new stadium.

Coach of the season: Steve Hansen would be most people's votes but he did inherit the team Graham Henry coached to World Cup glory even if he superbly blended in youth this season. My vote goes to Tony Brown, a first year coach who turned a group of club players in to a superb NPC team that very nearly earned promotion to the premiership. The former first-five from Kaitangata could be a must-watch for Highlanders coaches in years to come.


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