With the inaugural Rugby Championship coming to an end on Saturday night, Dumptackle Rugby Blog decided to take a look at whose star shone brightest, as NZ continued it's international dominance with an unbeaten campaign, Argentina caused more than a few scares and the Wallabies/Springboks largely disappointed.
So without further adieu, here are the selections for our 'Team of the Tournament':
1.Rodrigo Roncero (Argentina): It's sad that Dr Roncero didn't get the send off he so deserved against Australia in Rosario, but no one can take away the fantastic performances he put in for the Pumas in their debut year with the Southern hemisphere big boys. Roncero was a constant menace, especially early on in the competition as chopped the big men down early in the tackle and assisted in a number of turnovers. His 3 pilfers was the joint most in the tournament. The 35 year old stalwart even popped his nose over the whitewash against the All Blacks in Wellington. World rugby will be poorer without him as he served his country with incredible ferociousness and passion for 14 years.
2.Adrian Strauss (South Africa): Strauss came into the Springboks starting line-up after an unfortunate injury to Sharks hooker Bismark duPlessis. It was a tall order to replace such an inspirational and physically imposing figure, but the golden locked Cheetah did just that with some energetic displays around the field. He was South Africa's busiest player on attack, with 44 ball carries for 194 metres over 6 games. Not too shabby for a front rower. A special mention goes to Eusebio Guinazu of the Pumas who put in some special performances early on in the competition too.
3.Owen Franks (New Zealand): Franks is one of those incredible specimens who is built like a s*ht brickhouse and yet can move like an openside flanker. His aerobic ability continued to serve him well in the Rugby Championship, as he was amongst the top tacklers on the park in every game he contested. He averaged 8.8 per game and played more minutes than any other prop in the comp. Immovable in the scrum, punishing in defence and durable....we may be looking at a future 'hall of famer'.
4.Patricio Albacete (Argentina): Tighthead lock was probably the most difficult position to pick this year, with Springbok enforcer Eben Etzebeth outstanding and unplayable at times and Luke Romano providing some old fashioned grunt for New Zealand in the pack. In the end though, Albacete got the nod for his consistency and his sheer work rate. With 67 tackles made, he was the second busiest in the competition and along with his compatriot, Roncero, was the top pilferer in the comp with 3. His ability in the lineout kept Argentina close in a number of games too.
5.Nathan Sharpe (Australia): The Western Force lock may not have the legs he once enjoyed, but his experience was vital at a time that a number of Wallabies were dropping like flies through injury. Taking over the captaincy, he did a sterling job steering the ship through some pretty testing waters and helped Australia avoid what would have been an infamous defeat to Argentina (both at home and away). He averaged 8.7 tackles per game and made the second most ball carries for the Wallabies with 47 for 210m.
6.Liam Messam (New Zealand): Many would have cast doubt on Messam's ability to replace the Japan bound Jerome Kaino earlier in the season. After all, Kaino had been NZ's star man in the pack at RWC 2011, while Messam (to most) had seemed flaky in his previous outings for New Zealand. An impressive Super 15 campaign with the Chiefs though, followed by some eye catching displays in the black jersey cemented his position as not only a starter but an integral player in the side. Effervescent attacking ability, complemented by a steelier attitude saw him regarded as one of the players of the tournament.
7.Richie McCaw (New Zealand): Is there anything this man can't do? Far from a fading force, McCaw's star shone just as bright in 2012. Perhaps even brighter without the performance hampering foot injury he endured last year. He's not the young tearaway he once was, but his game has matured and the latest phase of his career has seen him develop into a pretty useful ball carrier. His efforts at the Forsyth Farr against SA will long be remembered as a true captain's knock too. For the most part, McCaw was peerless at 7, bar a late resurgence from South Africa's Francois Louw and an electric outing from Australia's Michael Hooper in the final round against the Pumas.
8.Kieran Reid (New Zealand): It's probably a tough call on Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, who was a real pillar of strength for the Pumas in their first southern hemisphere campaign, but Reid is now inarguably regarded as the world's best 8. Whether taking the ball up the guts or rampaging out wide as was the case in the last two rounds, the athletic Cantabrian was in his element and his staggering work rate left the opposition in all sorts of trouble on many occasion. He's an obvious successor to McCaw as captain when the time comes for the old stager to hang up his boots.
9.Aaron Smith (New Zealand): Smith may have be touted as the best passing halfback to come out of New Zealand since Graeme Bachop, which he most certainly is, but that accolade is misleading, for he is also a devastating runner with ball in hand. The Manawatu tyro ran the ball more than any other halfback in the competition, upstaging more lauded running halfbacks Will Genia and Francois Houggard and scoring 3 tries in the process and creating many more...
10.Dan Carter(New Zealand): There was talk prior to the Championship that Chiefs sensation Aaron Cruden may have had a chance of ousting the 'King' from his starting spot. In fairness Cruden performed well in Carter's absence against South Africa, but the attack just seemed a little crisper with DC at the helm and really burst into life in round 5. It was a timely reminder from the world's top ever point scorer that DC still has a lot to give, following his agonising early RWC exit last year. Carter again finished as the comp's top point scorer with 58 points (despite missing two games).
11.Bryan Habana (South Africa): Habana rolled back the years in 2012 with some live-wire performances on the right wing and finished off the competition as the top try scorer with 7, equalling Christian Cullen's record for number of tries in a single Tri Nations/Rugby Championship. The Stormers flyer has now amassed a pretty impressive 47 tries in test rugby too, in 83 games. At 29 and still going strong, who's to say he won't break Daisuke Ohata's international try scoring record of 69 tries?
12.Ma'a Nonu (New Zealand): The Wellingtonian started the first two games of the competition at 13, but really came to the fore when he was shifted back to his preferred inside centre role following Sonny Bill Williams' departure to Japan. His renewed partnership with Conrad Smith (below) was lethal as the All Blacks started clicking into gear during their away trips to La Plata and then Soweto. In his four games at 12, Nonu scored two tries, made three clean linebreaks and an incredible16 tackle busts.
13.Conrad Smith (New Zealand): Smith missed the start of the tournament through injury but slotted back in with ease in round 3. His subtlety in attack added hugely to the All Blacks backline, who although dangerous, had seemed a little wasteful early on in the tournament. The Hurricanes skipper added some needed composure though and with that the tries began to flow. Smith also only missed 3 tackles in the whole competition. His defence was quite simply awe inspiring. Still the premier centre in world rugby.
14.Corey Jane (New Zealand): CJ's reputation grew further in 2012, as he allied his precision under the high ball with an increasing attacking threat out wide. He scored 5 tries in his 6 outings, including a mesmerising hatrick against the Pumas away from home. That hand-off of his is probably the strongest in world rugby too. The Hurricane wing made Argentinian glamour puss Juan Martin Hernandez look silly in La Plata. Next cab off the rank was Gonzalo Camacho who was bristling with attacking verve with every touch he had. Some more class around him and he could be a real star of the world game.
15.Israel Dagg (New Zealand): Sensational. There's not much more to say about the All Blacks' full back. He continues to be Australia's arch nemesis with his searing breaks an eye for the line, but has become an even more vital for the World Champions this year. Dagg took the ball on as first receiver on a number of occasions in the Rugby Championship and shared the kicking duties out of hand with Carter for the most part. You get the feeling he could easily play at 10, much like Stephen Larkham's shift from fullback to flyhalf in the late 90s. In addition to his 322 running metres made, he gained a mind blowing 1789m with his punting. It's difficult to call any player in the All Blacks irreplaceable, but you get the feeling the Hawkes Bay maestro would be missed more than most.
*All statistics were taken from ESPN Scrum
Do you agree with the selections?
If not, who would you have picked?