As one of the most dramatic years in New Zealand rugby history draws to a close, Patrick McKendry of APNZ looks back on the highs and lows of 2011 and what to look out for over the next 12 months.
That was then:
The rugby year ended with the All Blacks winning a dramatic World Cup final but began with tragedy.
The February earthquake which devastated Christchurch also had a big impact on the Crusaders but they somehow drew strength from the disaster.
When the big one hit, many of the Crusaders were showering after a training session. They quickly made their way out of the changing rooms at their Rugby Park base, knowing the old concrete grandstand shaking above them could collapse at any moment.
As they made their way to the safety of the middle of the training pitch, none could have known what lay ahead for Christchurch or their Super Rugby season.
With the death toll rising in the city - the final count was 182, and included Crusaders board member Phil MacDonald - no one felt like playing rugby.
The upcoming match against the Hurricanes in Wellington was cancelled but apart from a temporary move to a new training base, it was business as usual. Counselling was offered to those struggling to get to grips with not only living in the wake of a major earthquake, but also the constant aftershocks.
Coach Todd Blackadder was adamant there would be no excuses, despite the fact that AMI Stadium was out of action and they would have to travel for every match of the season.
In the end they did remarkably well to make the grand final against the Reds in Brisbane, despite being put through an emotional wringer and travelling from Timaru to Twickenham and many places in between to play "home" games.
Fast forward to the All Blacks' World Cup victory and many Crusaders were involved in that dramatic campaign too.
Eight from the franchise took the field in the final, although two, Andy Ellis and Sonny Bill Williams, came on as substitutes. Israel Dagg, at fullback, was the sole starter in the backs but there were five in the pack - Richie McCaw, Kieran Read, Thorn, Sam Whitelock, and Owen Franks. One big name, Dan Carter, was sidelined with a groin injury.
The other major injury concern was McCaw's foot but he somehow battled through the pain and lack of training to play significant roles in both the semifinal win over Australia and final victory over France.
The All Blacks to dominate the headlines in the latter part of the tournament were Cory Jane, Israel Dagg, Piri Weepu, Aaron Cruden and Stephen Donald, all for different reasons.
Jane and Dagg were spotted drinking in the build-up to the Argentina quarter-final, with a chastened Jane making a welcome statement by playing well in a difficult match. Dagg was unavailable to play due to injury.
Weepu turned in a man-of-the-match performance against the Pumas before being told his grandfather had passed away and Donald went from fourth-choice first-five to first-class hero when replacing the injured Aaron Cruden and kicking the crucial penalty for the All Blacks against France.
After 24 years the All Blacks had repeated their success at the same venue against the same opponent. Few were more relieved than McCaw and Graham Henry, both of whom had taken defeat in Cardiff four years previously particularly to heart.
A couple of weeks later Henry confirmed what everyone knew when announcing he was stepping down as head coach of the All Blacks.
Henry coached the All Blacks 103 times over eight years and his last two assignments against the Wallabies and France were among the most stressful for him and in particular his family.
"They went through hell last Sunday," he said of his family during the final moments of the All Blacks' 8-7 victory over France. "There's a very fine line between being the hero or the villain. I know that line very well, probably more than most, and that puts huge pressure on the people who have no control over that."
This is now:
Next year the Crusaders will have a stadium in Christchurch again. A big refurbishment to what is now called Rugby League Park in Addington will give them a home, starting in March with their round three match against the Chiefs.
The Crusaders players and coaching staff won't be the only ones relieved about that. New All Blacks coach Steve Hansen will be too ahead of a busy season featuring 14 tests.
First up is a three-match series in June against Ireland (one of those is to be held at Christchurch's new stadium), before the new "Rugby Championship" featuring the old Tri Nations plus newcomers Argentina kicks off in August. Another Bledisloe Cup match against Australia follows before four matches in the traditional money-making end-of-year tour to the United Kingdom.
It will be interesting to see how McCaw goes after his foot problems of 2011. He will expect to be 100 per cent following surgery to remove the screw in his metatarsal bone but playing 14 tests next year along with a full Super Rugby programme is surely out of the question for him.
In the meantime, the NZRU is in the process of selling the licences of its Super Rugby franchises. It hopes to roll out the new financial model for the 2013 season, but as yet has received no offers from wealthy benefactors wanting to take on a fair bit of risk and little prospect of reward, at least in the near future.
With chief executive Steve Tew admitting the current model is broken, it is generally acknowledged that something has to be done. Time will tell whether it's the right move.
Story of the year:
All Blacks win World Cup in New Zealand after 24 painful years, closely followed by Crusaders making Super Rugby final.
Quotes of the year:
"It's hard to describe. I am absolutely shagged." McCaw borrows from former All Black Peter Jones when asked about his feelings straight after winning the World Cup.
"It's psychological warfare from Mother Nature." An emotional Brad Thorn on the Canterbury earthquakes during the week of the Super Rugby final.
Player of the year:
In terms of consistency and effectiveness on the pitch, loose forward Jerome Kaino, who was honoured in December's New Zealand rugby awards, takes this. His physicality, especially against the All Blacks' Tri Nations opponents, went to a new level this year.
McCaw deserves an honourable mention for his leadership and physical and mental strength in the most challenging of years.
- APNZBy Patrick McKendry Email Patrick