The 2012 awards

JON CARDINELLI and RYAN VREDE rate the real winners and losers of the 2012 season.

THE HEROES by Jon Cardinelli

Come on, were there any real contenders beside Richie McCaw for the Player of the Year award? Fellow All Blacks Kieran Read and Dan Carter had a chance, but otherwise no player came close to McCaw in 2012. Before the Rugby Championship finale in Soweto, Bok coach Heyneke Meyer told a New Zealand reporter that McCaw’s presence was worth an extra 10 to 15 points for the All Blacks. Meyer’s prediction then came to pass when New Zealand thumped South Africa 32-16 at Soccer City. Tellingly, McCaw also excelled in the Tests where the All Blacks struggled for fluency. New Zealand were manhandled by the Boks in Dunedin, but McCaw (as well as some wayward Bok goal-kicking) kept them in the game through a superhuman breakdown effort. The 2012 season will have added to his legacy as one of the best forwards to have played the game.

Eben Etzebeth was born to play Test rugby. From his first Super Rugby appearance, he displayed an appetite for destruction that had many tipping him to become the next Bakkies Botha. Fast-tracked into the Springbok starting side in the series against England, he lived up to the hype, and while there was the one incident where he went too far in the Rugby Championship (the headbutt on Nathan Sharpe), he continued to take giant strides in that enforcer’s role. His progress was evident in the latter stages of the Currie Cup and then on the Boks’ end-of-year tour, where powerful yet controlled performances at the lineout and at the collisions helped the respective teams to victory. Rumour has it that Western Province recently ordered Etzebeth a bigger set of dumbbells, as the older weights no longer presented a challenge. Etzebeth will only get stronger, and better, in 2013.

In 2011, many people including this writer felt Bryan Habana was a spent force, and a mediocre performance at the World Cup seemed to signify the end of a great Test career. But Habana refused to give up. He got back on Dr Sherylle Calder’s EyeGym programme and adopted a more measured approach to training. The end result was a fantastic return to form, first in the 2012 Super Rugby competition, and then on the Test stage. The brilliant Bryan of old is back, and as much he will be praised for his game-breaking attacking skills, his perseverance cannot be commended enough.

The biggest triumph for a South African team in 2012 was the winning of the IRB Junior World Championship. The fact that Dawie Theron’s charges defeated the Baby Blacks in the final made the victory that much sweeter, as these are the players that will be contesting the No 1 ranking at senior level in the years to come. The tournament highlighted the potential of Jan Serfontein and Steven Kitshoff, and also showcased several other superstars in the making such as Handre Pollard, Shaun Adendorff, Raymond Rhule and Pieter-Steph du Toit.

The Try of the Year Award goes to the Springboks, and no, I’m not being ironic. While the Boks delivered some brutally effective defensive displays, their attacking innovation and execution left a lot to be desired. There were a few instances, however, where the Boks showed their latent attacking potential, both as individuals and as a collective. There was the try that scooped the official IRPA award, but that try in Soweto ranked as a superior example. It began from a strong lineout, involved a smart interchange between all three loose forwards, and culminated with Bryan Habana rounding the poles. It was the highlight of that game if you were a Bok supporter, and one of the few highlights of the year as far as the Bok attack was concerned.

Many sneered when Western Province celebrated their Vodacom Cup success as if they had ended a 11-year trophy drought, and similarly discounted the Stormers’ winning of the South African Conference trophy. What couldn’t be denied, however, was WP’s triumph in the Currie Cup final, a win against all odds that definitively ended a decade-long period of pain and frustration. It was the stuff of fairytale, with WP given zero chance of winning against a Springbok-laden Sharks side in Durban. It will be remembered as one of the greatest title wins in WP history.

Read the book? Seen the movie? Okay, so it’s not exactly the same as Moneyball, but the Chiefs embraced similar principles ahead of what would be a Super Rugby-winning campaign. Coach Dave Rennie installed a healthy work ethic and initiated a culture that championed the collective over the individual. They may not have boasted as many international stars as the other teams in the competition, but the Chiefs were the best collective unit. They played some exciting rugby at times, but they never de-prioritised the basics of territory and defence.

Scotland deserve recognition for their first win on Australian soil in 30 years, as do England for their surprisingly dominant performance against New Zealand. But the results that came as more of a shock were the victories for the Pacific island nations in Cardiff and Edinburgh. First Samoa rocked the Six Nations champions, and then Tonga rattled Scotland a week later. They are results that come less than a year after Samoa beat the Wallabies in Australia, and Tonga shocked France at the World Cup in New Zealand. They are also results that must send a message to the IRB that the Pacific island nations can be more than also-rans in world rugby. They deserve more opportunities against top-flight teams, as well as the same resources and leeway to ensure that they can be competitive.

THE VILLAINS by Ryan Vrede

Most of us have willed the memory of Dean Greyling’s horror show in Dunedin against the All Blacks to the darkest depths of our subconscious. He is a cult hero in some parts of Pretoria, I’m guessing, but for the vast majority of us he will be the prime example of how to completely destroy your international future. He squandered a scoring chance, was out of position for one of the Blacks’ tries and, most pertinently, was sent off for a cowardly and highly dangerous forearm smash on a defenceless Richie McCaw. I have it on good authority that he will never see a Springbok jersey for as long as Heyneke Meyer is coach. He should never have in the first place, but that knowledge is comforting nonetheless. The guy is named after the famously intelligent ’80s television character MacGuyver. They share a name, but not intellectual capacity. The guy can’t even get his face framed for his Twitter avatar. On your marks, go check.

Morne Steyn was always going to have the inside lane to the No 10 shirt when Heyneke Meyer became Springbok coach. The two have a professional relationship going back more than a decade and in the context of Meyer’s game plan, Steyn was viewed as central to success. The signs were there in Super Rugby, where Steyn’s general play was uninspiring, and, tellingly, his goal-kicking fell well below the standard he has set in recent years. That form carried into the Test season, and calls steadily grew for his axing. Meyer cupped his hands, put them over his ears and defied the unbelievers. That was until Steyn’s diabolical goal-kicking cost Meyer a victory on New Zealand soil. It should have seen him cut loose, but for Meyer’s inability to end his poisonous love affair, and Steyn was again involved for the year-end tour. Only a brave man would bet against him resurfacing in 2013.

Everyone, and I mean everyone (including the Kings themselves), involved in the messy Kings saga deserves whatever criticism has come their way. There are varying degrees of culpability, but that doesn’t matter, they all contributed to a national embarrassment. And after all that they still failed to reach a solution that was even remotely close to satisfying or sensible. That the Kings will be hammered in 2013 is a given, but that’s not the point. There has been so little planning around their introduction and their own vision for the future is weak.

The Lions won three of their 16 matches, continuing their Super Rugby ineptitude. Only this year their problems deepened, with boardroom chaos culminating in the already broke franchise being successfully sued for millions by the Pumas and Leopards. As if they didn’t have a bad enough year, they then suspended coach John Mitchell (on full pay) after a player revolt, only to reinstate him a couple of months later after he refused to resign. They simply didn’t have the cash to pay him out for the remainder of his contract and palmed him off to the Sale Sharks. Poor Sharks.