Rugby union review 2012
The full story, including most memorable moments and best quotes, from an amazing year in rugby union
By Tony Curtis - Follow me on Twitter: @SkysportsTC. Last Updated: 20/12/12 9:17pm
Sandwiched between a World Cup and a British and Irish Lions tour, 2012 was always going to struggle for those back-page grabbing headlines - but it put up a damn good fight.
Wales, Harlequins, Leinster and England did their bit for the northern hemisphere, while once again it was the All Blacks - as well as their Super 15 representatives in the shape of the Chiefs - that stole the show in the south.
However, the north was given a bloodied nose by their southern compatriots in the battles between the two - and it will have given Lions coach Warren Gatland plenty to think about ahead of the tour to Australia.
Having reached the semi-finals of the World Cup in New Zealand, the pressure was on Gatland's Wales 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.
However, as has happened before in recent history, after such a success disappointment followed - with a run of defeats. A series whitewash in Australia started off the rot, with defeats to Argentina, Samoa, New Zealand and the Wallabies following.
Scotland's run of losses, including the Six Nations wooden spoon, ultimately accounted for Andy Robinson - with the former England, Bath and Edinburgh coach stepping down after the loss to Tonga - while Ireland at least beat Fiji and old foes Argentina.
England showed signs of putting their World Cup woes behind them as they finished runners up in the Six Nations, and although things didn't quite go to plan result-wise against South Africa and Australia, they struck back to topple New Zealand.
Having added the inaugural Rugby Championship crown to their collection, the All Blacks seemed invincible - although an 18-18 draw with the Wallabies ended their hopes of a record-breaking winning run. They were still unbeaten in 20 matches when they arrived at Twickenham, only for England to romp to the most memorable of wins.
While 2012 saw the introduction of the Rugby Championship, with Argentina joining the Tri-Nations, there was no movement on a domestic battle of the hemispheres - although plenty would have paid to see Leinster take on the Chiefs. Leinster made it back-to-back Heineken Cup titles with a one-sided rout of Ulster, while the Chiefs claimed the Super Rugby crown for the first time by overcoming the Sharks.
Domestically, Harlequins also secured their first Aviva Premiership title as they beat Leicester in a thrilling showpiece at Twickenham - with Conor O'Shea's men back in the mix this time around - while the Ospreys denied Leinster the double by clinching the RaboDirect PRO12 crown.
Toulon's big spending failed to deliver a trophy as they lost to Toulouse in the Top 14 final and then Biarritz in the Amlin Challenge Cup final.
Honourable mentions in 2012 should go to Edinburgh, who became Scotland's first semi-finalists in the Heineken Cup, the Pacific Islanders - with Samoa and Tonga recording victories over Tier One nations - the New Zealand Sevens team for the HSBC World Series triumph and England's Women, who secured notable successes in both forms of the game.Top 10 memorable moments:
1) England silence All Blacks: My highlight of 2012. It was a stunning day at Twickenham as England ended New Zealand's 20-match unbeaten run in emphatic style. The crowd did their part as "Swing Low Sweet Chariots" drowned out the Haka, while Chris Robshaw and his troops produced the sort of performance to give England hope under coach Stuart Lancaster. The win was all the more remarkable given New Zealand's stirring fightback after the break before England were able to cut loose.
Michaela Staniford: The IRB Player of the Year
3) London Welsh defy the odds: London Welsh gave the Premiership and the RFU one hell of the headache as they unexpectedly overcame the Cornish Pirates in the RFU Championship play-offs. Having finished fourth in the regular season, few gave the Exiles a hope clinching promotion. However, they first saw off the Bedford Blues and then, despite having the RFU reject their promotion application on the eve of the final first leg, the Pirates. The news of their failure to meet the promotion criteria couldn't have come at a worse time but they regrouped brilliantly to win 37-21 at Mennaye Field before claiming a 29-20 victory at home. The cherry on the cake came when Welsh won their appeal to secure their rightful place at English rugby's top table.
4) Aviva Premiership final - Harlequins 30-23 Leicester: The perfect example of what the Premiership can deliver. The keenly-fought final between two sides with contrasting styles eventually went the way of the Quins - for their maiden domestic title. The match remained in the balance throughout and the Tigers were left to wonder what could have been once again.
5) Wasps 40-42 Harlequins: Having claimed a place in the Top 10 Moments with their final match of the 2011/12 campaign, Quins were at it again with their opening game of this season. Having trailed 20-0 after 12 minutes and 40-13 with 22 minutes left, there should have been no way back for Conor O'Shea's men. However, when winning becomes a habit you can never afford to write off sides and the defending champions came storming back. Mike Brown and Nick Evans inspired the recovery - with the New Zealand fly-half landing the winning penalty with three minutes left to stun Wasps.
6) Heineken Cup success for Leinster: The all-Ireland affair at Twickenham for the Heineken Cup might not have lived up to its billing, but that was not the fault of Leinster. Joe Schmidt's men were simply irresistible as they ruthlessly ended Ulster's brave bid. Their 42-point haul was a record - overtaking the 34 scored by Leicester in 2001 - as were the five tries they scored and the 28-point winning margin. And all of this in front of a record Heineken Cup final crowd of 81,774. That match just edges out Edinburgh's superb win over Toulouse in the quarter-finals.
7) Pacific Islanders hit back: Samoa and Tonga struck blows for the Tier Two 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 - a result that ultimately cost coach Andy Robinson his job.
8) Wales claim the Grand Slam: Warren Gatland's side rode their luck at times - and perhaps used up their quota for the year considering what was to come - but they deserved their clean sweep in the RBS Six Nations. They were forced to dig deep at times - particularly against Ireland and England - but they battled brilliantly, with their young players backing up their impressive run to the World Cup semi-finals.
9) Tom Varndell's tackle on Sam Vesty: As a youngster you are taught never to celebrate before scoring - however, one suspects Vesty might have missed that particularl lesson. Having taken the pass from Josh Ovens less than 20m from the line and with no-one in front of him, Vesty slowed and raised his arm in celebration. However, Varndell had not given up the chase and not only did he put in the tackle, but he prevented Vesty from grounding the ball. Wasps might have lost the match but Vesty's failure to score meant they picked up a losing bonus-point - something that was to prove crucial as they just avoided the drop.
10) The Chiefs claim Super Rugby title: It had been a long time in coming, but the Waikato-based Chiefs were finally celebrating success in Super Rugby. Having had to wait until 2004 for their first semi-final appearance and then finishing as runners-up in 2009, the Chiefs enjoyed a season to remember. They ended up winning the New Zealand Conference, setting a number of franchise records along the way, while fly-half Aaron Cruden was simply sensational. The Chiefs overcame the seven-time champions, the Crusaders, in the semi-final before blowing away the Sharks 37-6 in a one-sided final.
Quotes of 2012:
"It would be impossible to turn down the opportunity if I was asked to be captain again, even though there are huge stresses that go with it." Brian O'Driscoll eyes another crack at the British and Irish captaincy.
"I've been picking up the rugby vocab - "le maul", "le ruck", "le pick-and-go" - honestly, that's what they say." Former England and Sale prop Andrew 'le' Sheridan has no problems dealing with life in France.
"Training is going well or it was until I had a mosquito bite that got infected and I had to have an operation to cut it out. It left a gaping hole in the back of my calf." Lewis Moody can't avoid the treatment room even after retiring.
"The vultures have been circling for months, picking off Welsh players like pieces of meat." The exodus of Wales internationals to France has not gone down well with WRU boss Roger Lewis.
"It has not fully sunk in. The kids at school have been running around saying, 'Miss, Miss, you're the best player in the world', but it does not feel like it." There is no chance to relax for new IRB Women's Player of the Year Michaela Staniford.
"They are pretty wingers, they are really good looking and I just can't wait to go against them." Australia's Digby Ioane is clearly a fan of the England wingers.
"He is a dynamic ball-carrier and he loves a scrum and you know that turns me on." Mako Vunipola has a fan in England forwards coach Graham Rowntree.
"Players like Quade get sorted. Sooner or later they get their beans." Richie McCaw clearly hasn't forgotten about Cooper.
"We got caught with our pants well down against Leicester and Quins, but we've learnt and we've come back." London Welsh head coach Lyn Jones is coping with life in the Premiership.
"A Lions tour is unique; it is the ultimate career pinnacle for coaches and players." Warren Gatland is honoured to be named Lions head coach.
Kris Chesney: Swapped Toulon for Esher
"It's a little bit surreal. We were a little bit slow out of the blocks. We were coming off a physical game last week but we got into our work and found our feet." Captain Craig Clarke on winning the Super Rugby title with the Chiefs.
"I spoke to Stuart Lancaster on the phone. I said, 'mate, I think I'm pretty much out'. He totally respected the decision and said it gave him carte blanche to go ahead and get some young guys, throw them in and see where England go." Jonny Wilkinson on his decision to quit England.
"It is a bitter-sweet situation as it is not my decision. You look at someone like David Flatman who has had their career snatched away by injury and it is gut-wrenching but it is also hard to take that it is over knowing you're fully fit." Tom Voyce on his struggles to find another club.
"We had our chances but fair play to Australia. They had chances and took them well. They kicked their points. I can't really talk at the minute, I am just absolutely gutted." Flanker Dan Lydiate is left devastated by the 20-19 third Test loss to Australia.
Ben Ryan: Has taken inspiration from other sports
"I had to be back training on Sunday as Steve wanted the players back in so I pretty much headed straight back. We have a big game on Friday against Saracens so hopefully I can enjoy a celebratory beer after that." A reformed Andy Powell on delaying his Grand Slam celebrations.
"It has been frustrating but there are no demons in my head about possibly getting injured again. What's happened has happened and there is nothing I can do about it. I just want to get back out on the field again." Colin Slade on his run of bad luck with injuries.
"There were days when I thought this wasn't going to happen, so it was amazing to get the phone call from Lanny." Phil Dowson on his call-up to the England set-up.Sporting hero 2012:
There are some fine nominations for the award. Dan Carter, on winning the IRB Player of the Year, would be a popular choice; Conor O'Shea, after guiding Harlequins to a first Aviva Premiership title, is another stronger contender - as are fellow coaches Joe Schmidt, Steve Hansen and Stuart Lancaster; Nathan Sharpe for defiantly carrying on and leading Australia to a winning finish, while if Tim Visser played for the All Blacks he would be heralded as one of the world's top players.
Lyn Jones: Has worked wonders with London Welsh
However, Lyn Jones gets my vote for his sensational work with London Welsh.
The former Ospreys and Neath boss certainly had a solid platform from which to build on with the Exiles having reached successive Championship semi-finals under Phil Greening.
But not only has Jones got Welsh to kick on to the next level, he has also helped them defy their critics.
Under the guidance of the former Wales flanker, the Exiles upset the odds by toppling the Cornish Pirates in the RFU Championship final.
That was not the end of the fight, with Welsh finally securing their place in the Premiership after a successful appeal.
The delay in ratifying their place in the top-flight - and a system where the club don't initially qualify for full funding - meant Jones was forced to piece together a squad capable of competing in the top-flight from scraps.
However, Jones has worked wonders and pulled more than a few rabbits out of the hat. And although they started slow - "we got caught with our pants down" - the Exiles have settled into life in the Premiership.
Having been the big favourites to go down, they reach the mid-point of the season with a more than healthy lead over their rivals.Ones to watch in 2013:
No individuals, instead a team - the British and Irish Lions. Being involved in the tour is the pinnacle for players, coaches and backroom staff alike, especially as the chance only comes every four years.
Warren Gatland: Wants the Lions to roar
It is a time when the home unions unite and after a run of series defeats - the Lions last won against South Africa in 1997 - the pressure will be on for them to deliver in Australia.
Although the Wallabies beat both England and Wales on their tour of the northern hemisphere, there is no doubt that they look susceptible, even with Will Genia et al to return.
And with each of the home unions producing a wealth of young talent, confidence is high that the Lions can roar once again.
Warren Gatland's squad - on and off the field - is already beginning to take shape, while debate rages over who should captain the side, as well as who should be on the plane Down Under.
With 10 matches to take in, it is set to be an enthralling tour - and you will be able to watch it all live on Sky Sports.