Numbers Game - Review of 2012
The year in numbers
December 18, 2012
Nathan Sharpe brought down the curtain on his memorable career in 2012 © Getty Images
If Nathan Sharpe really has retired, he was certainly - in the words of old-fashioned obituarists - 'active to the end'. As the year ends, and the statistically-minded look at the numbers, the veteran Aussie lock - who postponed his retirement to lead the Wallabies on their autumn tour - emerges as the most active international rugby player of 2012, starting 15 matches. Only compatriot Dave Dennis increased his total of caps - in his case from zero, since this was also his debut year - by as many during the year and seven of Dennis' appearances were from the bench.
In the process Sharpe became Australia's most capped forward , overtaking George Smith, and lifted himself into equal sixth - alongside Richie McCaw, on the all-time list with a (presumably) final total of 115 appearances.
All but seven of those Wallaby caps have been won as a starter, but there are other players who come off the bench more often in a single year. Flip van der Merwe continued the tradition established by Ollie le Roux as the Bok prop who constructs an entire international career around being the chap who comes off the bench after 50 minutes to an hour, with 11 of his 12 international caps in 2012 coming as a replacement. But still more notable in this category is Piri Weepu. The All Black scrum-half also came off the bench 11 times during the year, with the final unveiling of the number 21 shirt, against England at Twickenham, taking him into the all-time record books. It was his 44th appearance from the bench, displacing le Roux's previous mark of 43.
An honourable mention in this category to Ronan O'Gara who added 10 caps in his pursuit of George Gregan at the top of the all-time table, without ever starting.
Who was the leading points scorer of 2012 depends on who you count. Ayumu Goromaru had played 11 matches for Japan before this year without making a huge impression as a points-scorer, because somebody else was doing the goal-kicking. Recalled at full-back this season he collected 32 points against Kazakhstan and a further 30 against the United Arab Emirates, going on to total 158 points in nine matches. That made him international rugby's leading marksman on one measure, but among those who played their rugby exclusively against the top 12, the title goes to Leigh Halfpenny, Wales's chief saving grace during the autumn programme, who claimed 145 points including 111 from 37 penalties, placing him top in that category also.
That still left him trailing in the wake of one of the men who has aided his transformation into a top-flight kicker, Wales kicking coach Neil Jenkins, whose single-year marks of 263 points and 62 penalties in 1999 will take some beating. Next in line behind Halfpenny was Daniel Carter, whose 135 points for the year also make up the exact margin of his lead, 1381 points to 1246, over Jonny Wilkinson in the all-time scoring lists. Aside from Goromaru, with 37, Carter was also the leading kicker of conversions with 21.
Impressive though Jenkins' single-year points mark is, Halfpenny and Carter at least got halfway there. Still more impregnable, at least if 2012 results are taken as a measure, is Wilkinson's record for drop goals in a single year - 14 in 2003.
Jonny's record for that year, also incorporating 233 points (2nd highest ever), 45 penalties (second) and 14 wins (equal first) in as many games, has some claim to be in purely statistical terms the most impressive 12 months ever by a single player. Top of the drops this year was Nicolas Sanchez of Argentina, whose tally of three incorporated two, each giving the Pumas the lead, in the defeat of Wales at Cardiff.
Nicolas Sanchez dropped the most drop-goals this year © Getty Images
Top try-scorer, and pretty undisputed rookie of the year, was Julian Savea with 12. Next up, excluding the prolific efforts of Onozawa of Japan and Barea of Argentina against third-rank nations, were Tommy Bowe, Bryan Habana and Cory Jane with seven apiece. Impressive though Savea's effort was, it still trails in a fair way behind the all-time single year record of 17 by Joe Rokocoko in 2003, also his debut year.
None of this matters, of course, beside the matter of winning. In that respect the happiest player of the year should be All Black lock Sam Whitelock who appeared in 12 winning teams. His team-mate Andrew Hore, with 11 wins and a draw, can claim a higher winning percentage even if his means of retaining that unbeaten record - getting suspended for his first-minute hit on Bradley Davies at Cardiff - was to be deplored. Ben Franks put together a particularly neat record, eight appearances - all as replacements - and eight wins.
At the other end of the scale were a clutch of Scots and Argentinians who played in eight losing teams, with particular sympathy going to David Denton. If fit he's a serious runner for a Lions place and a worthy successor to a fine Scottish tradition of quick, tough, skilled back rowers. But where the four compatriots and two Pumas who also lost eight times had the consolation of the odd victory, Denton's record for 2012 has a grim austerity - played 8 lost 8. He can at least claim some distinguished company.
The all-time record for defeats in a year is held by numerous players with 10 losses. Notable among them is Sergio Parisse, who suffered the peculiar mortification of a played 10 lost 10 record in 2009. But if eligible, there's little doubt that Parisse would have been a nailed-on Lions choice that year, and for every other tour that has taken place during his career.
The All Blacks swept all before them in 2012 - apart from England © PA Photos
It would be surprising if anyone other than an All Black had been the year's 'winningest' player, given that they won 12 matches and the next highest were Australia with nine and South Africa on seven. Had they beaten England a 13-1-0 record would have ranked among the best ever - nobody has ever won as many matches in a year in which they were also undefeated. Instead it drops into a line behind England in 2003 (a record 16 wins, 1 defeat), the All Blacks of 1997 (11-1-0) and the South Africans of 1995 (played 10, won 10).
It was still, though, good enough to keep New Zealand way ahead of everybody else. Their 12-1-1 record computes at 89.28 per cent, giving them a Bradmanesque edge over South Africa (66.66) and France (65.0). Wales contrived the minor miracle of a losing record in a Grand Slam-winning season, while Scotland's three wins from 11 (27.27 per cent) place them bottom of the 10 teams who played in the Six Nations or the Rugby Championship.
But then Bradman is the comparison which comes to mind when you look at the All Blacks record over the past nine years. They have won most matches (including two ties, but each time with fewer defeats than the other teams) in eight of those nine seasons and had the highest winning percentage (with one tie) in eight. It takes something special to do better than the All Blacks. The highest number of wins in a year (South Africa, 14 in 2007) and the best winning percentage (Ireland, 95 per cent in 2009) were both set by other teams - the only teams to have beaten New Zealand in either category over a calendar year since 2003.
Ireland may be top, but the All Blacks command second to sixth places for single-year winning percentages - 89.28 per cent this year ranks only fifth. A year for the ages for most teams, 2012 ended up as only slightly better than average for the modern All Blacks. In 131 matches since the end of the 2003 World Cup, they have won 112 and drawn one, for a winning percentage of 85.87 per cent.
Only Ireland among the other teams have bettered that for even a single year, with Argentina's 83.33 per cent in 2007 followed by South Africa's 82.35 in the same year and Wales's 81.81 in 2005 as the nearest approaches. Doing over long periods what only the very best of the rest can manage in short bursts is truly Bradmanesque. Thank God, the rest of the world may well say, for those moments of fallibility in the later stages of World Cups.
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