2011 was the rugby year that kept on giving. An entertaining (if not always brilliant) Six Nations lead into a pulsating end to the Heineken Cup and a war of attrition in the Magners League final, where Munster prevailed.
From here we went south and were treated to a highly compelling Super 15 competition followed by a mixed bag of a Tri Nations series, where only two teams really decided to turn up. Then, of course, it was onto the big one – the World Cup. Although not without its flaws (outrageous scheduling of minnow nations), it was a highly successful World Cup with some great rugby and tremendous matches.
The Northern Hemisphere season is almost half way there again now and the Heineken Cup in particular has produced some pulsating games already.
Let us cast our eye back and pick out some of the highlights of 2011 and the players/teams that excelled along the way.
Team of the Year: Leinster produced an extraordinary Heineken Cup campaign, slaying a plethora of powerhouses along the way before producing a quite incredible second half display against Northampton in the final to secure their second Heineken Cup in three years. It was something to behold and a finer campaign you will struggle to find.
Euan McKenzie guided the Queensland Reds to their first Super Rugby trophy, as we know the competition today. The Reds played some breathtaking rugby during the course of the competition, inspired by the brilliance of Will Genia, Quade Cooper and the devastating finishing of Digby Ioane.
The Team of the year, however, has to go to the World Cup winners, New Zealand. Although they spluttered to victory somewhat in the end, they did emerge victorious when all was said and done. They were faced with adversary along the way but still managed to come good. Given the severe pressure on their home soil, along with the loss of their best player early in the tournament, it would have been easy for the team to fold. The excuses were there. But they didn’t and ended twenty four years of pain by claiming the coveted trophy.
Performance of the Year: It is difficult to select one outstanding performance of the year, as there were so many terrific displays. Ireland’s performance against Australia in the World Cup pool stages has to be right up there. The Irish did their homework and executed their game plan perfectly. They quite literally suffocated Australia in defence and battered over the gain line time and again through the outstanding Sean O’Brien and Stephen Ferris. Australia didn’t see this fight coming and duly got knocked out.
An honourable mention must go to Tonga also for their win over France in the World Cup. Although the French were still in mutiny mode, it was still an astonishing result and fully deserved.
The Welsh performance at the World Cup, particularly against Ireland, was very impressive and who knows what might have happened if Sam Warburton hadn’t been sent off against France in the semi final for the now infamous spear tackle on Vincent Clerc.
The award must ultimately go to Leinster’s second half display against Nothampton in the final of the Heineken Cup. Joe Schmidt’s side went into the break trailing by 22 points to 6 and being truly beaten off the park. They were dead and buried if truth be told, but the province emerged from the second half and took our breath away. Inspired by Jonny Sexton, Leinster came back to beat the Saints 33-22 in an epic forty minutes, playing some incredible rugby.
Player of the Year: Another difficult call to make given so many players showed excellent form at different junctures throughout the year. IRB player of the year Thierry Dusautoir was consistently brilliant all season. His performance in the World Cup final was simply phenomenal and he very nearly dragged an erratic French side to the Webb Ellis trophy – no mean feat.
European player of the year Sean O’Brien enjoyed an exceptional year, using his power and pace to smash his way through opposing sides. The ‘Tullow Tank’ was instrumental in Leinster’s Heineken Cup win and looked awesome at the World Cup up until the Wales game.
Speaking of power, Ma’a Nonu had an outstanding year and became so much more than the bosh it up the middle first centre. Notable mentions must also go to Will Genia, Digby Ioane, Jerome Kaino and Sergio Parisse who were all excellent also.
My vote, however, goes to David Pocock who was simply unbelievable at stages, particularly in that World Cup quarter final against South Africa where he singlehandedly stopped the Springboks from winning that game through his defensive work at the breakdown. I was blown away every time I watched him play and staggered at the impact he had on the game, so the Aussie gets the nod.
Try of the Year: There is no shortage of contenders in this category but the winner in the end is a 35 year old number eight, Radike Samo, sprinting 60 metres to score an incredible try against the All Blacks. Refresh your memory below..
Flop of the Year: Never the nicest category to indulge in but a worthy one nonetheless. Heading into the World Cup, all eyes were on Quade Cooper as the magician had just guided the Reds and Australia to the Super 15 and Tri Nations titles respectively. His dancing feet were supposed to light up the World Cup. In the end, Cooper never got going and was a liability more than anything.
Although he had enjoyed a memorable year up until that point, Cooper’s performances at the World Cup were ultimately hugely disappointing.
Coach of the Year: Anyone for Marc Lievremont?? Didn’t think so.
Although Joe Schmidt and Euan McKenzie did incredible jobs in guiding Leinster and the Reds to pinnacle of the club game in their respective hemispheres, it is Graham Henry who sneaks though on this one. Had Wales reached the final of the World Cup (or indeed beyond), Warren Gatland would have been right in the mix but Henry’s tenacity eventually got New Zealand over the line.
The pressure on his shoulders since that loss to France in the quarter final four years ago must have been almost unbearable but he stuck with it, built another incredible squad of players and ultimately has a World Cup to show for it. Tip of the hat.
As the dust now settles on what was a memorable 2011, let’s hope for more of the same in 2012.. Let us know your favourite moments of the past year!