This year has produced some classic encounters, such as Leinster’s demolition of Ulster in the Heineken Cup, Wales’ clash with Ireland in the Six Nations and the Auckland Blues' thriller against the Chiefs in Super 15. But in terms of spectacle at the highest level, England’s win over New Zealand at Twickenham in November is undoubtedly the highlight of the year. New Zealand were unbeaten in 20 games, England were on the brink of a whitewash by the Southern Hemisphere in 2012, and nobody really expected anything other than an All Blacks win after 18 months of dominance. Manu Tuilagi sparkled and England took the win 38-21.
While most Welsh fans will probably have their heads in their hands after a dismal autumn, they still at least have Six Nations bragging rights for a couple more months. For atmosphere at a rugby match the Millennium Stadium is still unparalleled so when Wales clinched their third Grand Slam in eight years by beating France in March it marked a truly momentous occasion. While the 16-9 scoreline was not the most eye-catching, Alex Cuthbert’s first-half try was and it set the Welsh up for an historic afternoon.
It’s not often you see players slipping over in the tunnel in front of millions at home, or Max Evans dancing to 'Call Me Maybe', or even Nick Cummins talking about getting a bit of “meat pie” in a post-match interview, but this year rugby has produced its fair share of banter. One moment earlier in the year though down at The Rec showed just what ex-Bath star Olly Barkley thinks of pitch invaders. What’s most amusing was how riled up Barkley got while the crowd were enjoying the pitch invader’s antics. Perhaps this is why he has moved across The Channel?
Dan Carter was recently voted IRB player of the year but Richie McCaw gets our vote. McCaw has missed just one test for New Zealand this year (against Italy) and was instrumental in the All Blacks’ 20-game unbeaten run. Carter started just nine matches this year and although he clocked up 135 points, it’s fair to say 2012 has not been a vintage year for him. McCaw will now take a well earned six-month break, to the relief of his rivals all round the globe.
That Argentina finally got a shot at taking on the world’s best in the Rugby Championship. Argentina have been steadily gaining momentum over the past five years and now boast some top class players with the likes of Lobbe, Fernandez, Leguizamon, Bosch and so on. The Pumas have been long overdue a chance at playing in a top flight tournament and thankfully this year’s inaugural Rugby Championship gave them the opportunity to show that they can rival the big Southern Hemisphere sides. Although they failed to grab a win, for their first year in the tournament they showed promise, with a draw with South Africa and narrow losses to Australia. More to come from The Pumas for sure.
While rugby is a physical game, every year there are moments that overstep the mark. High tackles, late tackles, flying fists, stamping - certainly a few memories that drag rugby’s name through the gutter. Andrew Hore recently exercised his right to bring shame to the game with a total cheap shot on Welsh lock Bradley Davies but back in March Northampton’s Calum Clark took it one step further when he broke the arm of Leicester forward Rob Hawkins. Not for the faint-hearted.
Sonny Bill Williams looked set to become one of New Zealand’s all time great centres until he decided to pack his bags, head off to Japan to play rugby for $100,000 a game and then return to rugby league. It’s a huge loss for the game and a huge disappointment for any fan who believed that Sonny Bill put rugby union first.
Juan Fernandez Lobbe did not even make the shortlist for this year’s IRB Player Of The Year. Can’t believe it either? With Owen Farrell managing to make his way onto the list you would have thought that the bruising Argentinean back row would have been in for a shout. And he really should have been. This year Lobbe has been imperious for both Toulon and his country during the inaugural Rugby Championship. It’s a gross injustice that he was overlooked for the IRB award but we can be sure it won’t affect him too much and that he will continue to shine next year.
Who to look out for in 2013
Joe Launchbury (London Wasps and England) – A real gem of a second row. So young still and a definite part of England’s team in the Six Nations, if not the British Lions.
Craig Gilroy (Ulster and Ireland) – The Irish speedster was excellent in the autumn and will also be looking for a British Lions call-up.
Billy Vunipola (Wasps) – Mako’s brother. A big and powerful back row who is building towards a 2015 spot with England.
Christian Wade (London Wasps) – Speed merchant who is scoring tries for fun at the moment.
Alex Goode (Saracens and England) – Now has international experience and will carry that through to the Premiership.
Tim Visser (Edinburgh and Scotland) – Dutch-born powerhouse that will be fighting for a Lions tour spot.
Frederic Michalak (Toulon and France) – Was great at 10 for France in the autumn but will be plying his trade at 9 for Toulon.
Julien Savea (Hurricanes and New Zealand) – Massive talent. Will be one to watch in Super Rugby this year.
Jonny Sexton (Leinster and Ireland) – Big six months to come with British Lions looming.
Carlin Isles (USA Rugby 7s player) – Fastest man in world rugby. Check him out on the internet for proof.