Sport : Rugby Union

Rugby union review of 2012

24th December 2012, 08:09am

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Leinster enjoyed Heineken Cup success

Leinster enjoyed Heineken Cup success

A look back at how the rugby union year of 2012 unfolded, including England's Twickenham victory over New Zealand.

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, in the main the north was given a bloody 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.

The Irish side 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.

MOMENTS OF THE YEAR

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.

The rise of England Women

The England Women could easily stake a strong claim to be the team of the year. A Grand Slam title was followed up by a 3-0 series whitewash of world champions New Zealand. The Sevens side got in on the act with success in Hong Kong and memorably at Twickenham in the London Sevens - Joanne Watmore running in a hat-trick in the final. The success hasn't gone unnoticed with Michaela Staniford named IRB Player of the Year.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 particular 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.MAN OF THE YEAR

There are some fine contenders 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.

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.


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