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Looking into our crystal ball

While 2011 produced drama, controversy and excitement in huge lumps, 2012 will bring a new wave of joy, thrills and its own brand of unpredictability, suspense, fickleness and recreation.

There is no doubt 2011 was the year of the All Blacks – as they retained their No.1 world ranking, ended a 24-year World Cup drought and extended their Bledisloe Cup reign to nine years.

Jan de Koning looks at what 2012 has in store for us.

The game is in full swing in Europe – where the European Cup, French Top 14, English Premiership and Pro12 are well advanced.

We are virtually a month away from the first international series, the Six Nations, where England will hope to put the disappointment of their disgraceful World Cup campaign behind them with a successful defence of their northern hemisphere crown.

France get proceedings underway when they host Italy – the team that effectively ended their 2011 campaign when they beat the Tricolours in Rome – on February 4.

After their narrow loss to New Zealand in the World Cup Final and with a new coach, the French will be among the pre-tournament favourites. England will have their work cut out and Wales look to be the team on the rise. Ireland, Scotland and Italy are the also-rans.

Wales versus France on March 17 – the final weekend of the tournament – could be the title decider.

The IRB Sevens World Series is already well underway, with defending and 10-time champions New Zealand joint first with one-time champions Fiji, after the first three of the nine tournaments in the series. South Africa, second last season, England, a rejuvenated France, Australia, Wales, Samoa and Argentina are other teams to look out for.

However, the eventual winners are likely to be from a much smaller pool already near the top – New Zealand, Fiji, South Africa and England. It all comes to a head in London in mid-May – following visits to Wellington (in New Zealand), Las Vegas, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Glasgow.

On the domestic scene in Europe there will also be enough delectable entertainment.

It starts with the Heineken Cup, where defending champions Leinster are well-placed for a repeat of their 2010/11 success.

They top Pool Three by a comfortable margin and with two rounds to go look certain to advance to the play-offs. Two of the other pools are headed by Irish teams – with two-time champions Munster well clear in Pool One and Ulster (champions in 1998/99) just clear in Pool Four. Edinburgh (Pool Two), Saracens (Pool Five) and Toulouse (Pool Six) are the other teams with their destiny in their own hands.

Cardiff Blues, in a very tight Pool Two, Leicester Tigers (Pool Four), Biarritz Olympique (Pool Five) and Harlequins (Pool Six) are also well-placed.

No doubt the final pool matches later this month will produce plenty of drama and some exciting developments.

There is also the Aviva Premiership, where defending champions Saracens are in a good position on the table – sevens points behind table-topping Harlequins, who have lost only one of their 12 matches with the competition just past the halfway mark. Beaten European Cup Finalists Northampton Saints are eight points behind the second-placed Sarries team, while nine-time champions Leicester Tigers are making up lost ground and have moved into the top four. It is difficult to see these four being overtaken in the play-off race – with London Irish, Sale Sharks, Gloucester and Exeter Chiefs the best-placed teams.

In the Pro12 (the competition between teams from the Celtic nations of Ireland, Wales and Scotland, along with two Italian franchises) the table is also dominated by the Irish – beaten 2010/11 finalists Leinster are well clear of the second-placed Welsh outfit Ospreys and lead by six points at the halfway stage. Scottish franchise Glasgow are well placed, as are defending champions Munster, making up the top four. Cardiff Blues and Scarlets are their most likely challengers, while Italian powerhouse Benetton Treviso remains the dark horse.

The French Top 14 club competition has also reached the halfway stage – with Toulouse sitting pretty at the top, followed by Clermont, Castres and Toulon. However, in this – the most unpredictable of all European competitions – teams like Agen, Stade Français, Racing Métro and Montpellier can’t be written off. The big surprise is seeing French giants Biarritz in last place on the table.

The southern hemisphere is not far from resuming action either, with the first round of the extended 21-week Super Rugby tournament – which takes a mid-season three-week break to allow for the June internationals – getting underway in late February.

The defending champion Reds will look to join the seven-time Crusaders as the only team to have won more than three titles. Although 2011 was the Reds’ first triumph in the professional era, many pundits conveniently forget that the Queensland state side also won Super 10 titles (1994 and 1995) in the amateur era. This puts them on par with the Bulls (2007, 2009 & 2010) and Blues (1996, 1997 & 2003) on the all-time champions table. The Brumbies, in 2001 and 2004, is the only other franchise to have won the world’s most demanding competition.

It all starts on February 24 when – only a few months after the global gaze was on Eden Park for the World Cup Final – the same ground sees the Blues kick off the Super Rugby season on home turf against the mighty Crusaders. The Christchurch outfit, beaten finalists in 2011, have won titles in 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2006 and 2008.

The Crusaders will face stiff competition in an ultra competitive New Zealand conference – with the Chiefs now featuring Sonny Bill Williams, while the Highlanders will feature England back row ace James Haskell.

The Reds’ biggest challenge in Australia is set to come from the Waratahs, as usual, although former World Cup-winning Springbok coach Jake White will be keen to lift the Brumbies from the doldrums.

As usual the Cape Town-based Stormers are being listed as the early favourites in the South African conference, followed by the Sharks, while the Bulls are in a rebuilding phase – having lost the services of seasoned internationals like Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Danie Rossouw, Gary Botha, Gurthrö Steenkamp and Fourie du Preez. It will also be interesting to see if the Lions can repeat their Currie Cup success on the Super Rugby stage and whether the Cheetahs will again flatter only to deceive.

The traditional June internationals will have some added spice this year – with a return of mini-tours (in the form of three-match Test series, rather than one-off clashes) when Ireland visit New Zealand, Wales travel to Australia, England are in South Africa and France face Argentina (in two Tests). Scotland stop off for a one-match midweek visit to Australia, their only Test in June, and Italy also stop off in Argentina for their only June Test.

The most intriguing of these clashes will be between Wales and Australia, who will have met each other in five Tests in nine months – with the Wallabies having won 21-18 (in the World Cup third-place play-off) and 24-18 (the Shane Williams farewell match in Cardiff in December).

South Africa have won their last seven encounters with England, Ireland have never beaten New Zealand, while Argentina have won seven of their last 10 Tests against France.

In August the Tri-Nations becomes The Rugby Championship, when Argentina join the SANZAR fold of South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.

The Wallabies, the defending champions, will look to build on a stellar 2011, despite their loss to the All Blacks in the World Cup semifinal, while the World Cup winners New Zealand will have a huge target on their collective backs. South Africa, without veterans like John Smit, Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez, still don’t know who their next coach will be and that surely means they will start with a huge disadvantage. Along with the Pumas the Springboks are looking set to make up the numbers in 2012.

The competition kicks-off on August 18 and the final round is on October 6.

In between there will be domestic competitions such as the Currie Cup and New Zealand’s NPC. Given that the Springboks are unlikely to feature in domestic competitions, the race will be wide open. However, the Currie Cup format – which is set to change to a six-team format – may change if some of the tempestuous officials on the SARU Executive Council again spit the dummy. The NPC will also be diluted, with the All Blacks on Test duty.

In November there are more international games to look forward to, just in case the previous 10 months’ deluge of fixtures has not left you exhausted. It will be another round of the southern hemisphere quartet against their Six Nations rivals.

And just to add to the madness, by then the European domestic season will also be in full swing again…

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