It feels like just yesterday that we were gearing up for the Six Nations, so it was with some shock that I looked at my calendar last week and realised that 2012 was upon us.
It has been a whirlwind of year. World Cup years always are, but Super Rugby's new extended format means that the Planet Rugby offices have become a non-stop, year-round hive of activity.
By time the campaign corks pop on December 31 we would have produced over 1000 match previews, many more match reports and over 200 live match commentaries! Indeed, 2011 will go down as a highly memorable but exhausting year.
The world online media industry is currently in a state of flux, the likes of which has never been seen before as a result of the global economic crisis. Advertising budgets, the driving force behind sport and the internet, are being cut around the world and as a consequence the weaker links in sports media are being relegated from the playing field.
Yet, amid the turmoil, I'm happy to report that Planet Rugby continues to grow in strength and size thanks to you, our loyal readers. So, the first order of business here is to extend our thanks for all those clicks, page views, comments and letters that truly make us the world's biggest rugby club.
The climax of the year was obviously the World Cup and our hearty congratulations go to New Zealand not only for raising the trophy for a second time, but also for putting on a fabulous event.
After the nation was quite literally shaken by the disaster in Christchurch, the All Blacks weathered the earth-shattering loss of Dan Carter and bravely carried the hopes of a nation on their way to capturing the Webb Ellis Cup.
But the hosts came mighty close to stumbling at the last hurdle. Indeed, in many ways the 2011 RWC will be remembered for France's antics both on and off the field. After a month of toy-throwing behind the scenes, dummy-spitting at press conferences and possibly the biggest upset of World Cup history (did anyone predict that shock loss to Tonga?) les Bleus came within inches of snatching 'Bill' out from under the All Blacks' noses.
The reasons behind France's loss at Eden Park have been debated and dissected a million times over many an ale but I think it's fair to say that, considering their performances leading up the final, most neutrals would have been left with a bitter taste had Marc Lièvremont's team gone all the way. That feeling was compounded when video evidence emerged of Aurélien Rougerie's indiscretions in the dying minutes. Even my wife, who is French and seldom agrees with me about anything, conceded that in the end King Richie's men deserved their title as much as Thierry Dusautoir earned his IRB Player of the Year honour.
For all their best (worst?) efforts, the French were still overshadowed for media coverage by England's ill-disciplined rabble. One has to feel for Martin Johnson, who in retrospect was probably given the top job four years too early. Playing the disciplinarian over some of his former (team) mates was always going to be tough, and in the end it proved too much to ask.
The highlight of the tournament was perhaps the notable improvement by the 'smaller' nations. Gone are the days of 100-point thrashings and with an improvement in scheduling and increased top-level competition for the island nations, as well as the likes of Japan and Georgia, the upsets needed to grab the attention of an even-greater world audience are not that far away. The tier-one nations should fear the day that the great masses in Russia and the USA discover our game and the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro might just be the catalyst for a giant leap forward in popularity.
It was a widely held opinion that the defending champions were the only team truly capable of challenging the All Blacks for the title. Failing to make the semi-finals was a bitter pill to swallow for many South Africans, including those on our staff, but the real low point of the World Cup came in the form of the plethora of poorly-informed conspiracy theories that emerged after the Springboks' exit, which only served to heighten the disappointment of being deprived of the opportunity of seeing the Boks take on the hosts.
Our guest columnist during the World Cup - former Bok prop Cobus Visage - certainly got chins wagging. If all goes to plan, we will have similarly interesting contributors for the upcoming Six Nations and the Rugby Championship (I still can't help but roll my eyes every time I hear the most unimaginative name for a tournament ever inflicted upon us).
While we're on the subject of controversy, this is a good opportunity to clear up a few misconceptions about our supposed 'editorial agenda.' We had good laugh earlier this year when we received two letters - within hours of each other - that respectively accused our team of being "cheerleaders for England" and berated us for our "enthusiastic England bashing." Over the course of the last 12 months we received similar correspondence from just about every other rugby playing nation...the balance of which suggests we might be doing something right.
I can honestly say we don't have hidden motives that intentionally advance the cause of any one nation. If all our writers chucked their passports into a hat there would be an even split between the hemispheres which often makes for some heated discussions at HQ. We love a good debate and we see your job as giving you the tools to have one.
Speaking of a good debate, our comments section is increasingly growing into a place where lively discussions are held and many well-informed opinions are aired. That said, the most frustrating part of my job is having to play headmaster to the small group of posters who, for some reason, believe their arguments carry more weight when accompanied by insults to other readers and nations. I suppose it comes with the territory (no pun intended).
Back to the review of year. 2011 will go down as one of the most successful in the history of Australia rugby as a Wallaby side buoyed by the Reds' Super Rugby success went on to claim the Tri-Nations, which is certainly is no mean feat. Bronze at the World Cup was obviously disappointing but I think it's very harsh of certain sectors of the Aussie press to be calling for Robbie Deans' head.
At club level, we were treated to a few cracking finals and Leinster's comeback to claim the Heineken Cup will long be remembered, as will the Crusaders' epic journey to the Super Rugby Final only to fall short against a red-hot Reds outfit.
The last few minutes of the Premiership showdown between Sarries and Leicester was absolutely gripping and ultimately heralded the start of the new era as Sarries held the Tigers at bay to claim an historic first title. I doubt they'll have to wait long for a second.
By contrast, the more things change the more they seem to stay the same in France, despite Montpellier briefly wobbling the apple cart in the Top 14 play-offs. Toulon will try do the same next May and they certainly have the personnel to do so.
Meanwhile the Lions' revival can only be good for South African rugby. Jo'burg has waited a long time to have a winning team again, and seeing Ellis Park full bodes well for the game in the Republic at a number of levels.
Although Leinster and Munster did battle for the Magners League title, for me the real story in Ireland at the moment is the reemergence of Ulster as a force to be reckoned with at European level. Keep an eye on Heineken Cup Pool Four in 2012 - both Clermont and Leicester should feel uncomfortable.
Of course how the Irish provinces cope with the new legislation aimed at limiting foreign imports will be the most vital part of their development over the next few years. It won't be easy.
Looking ahead to the new year, a number of questions await answers: Who will coach the Springboks? Does Stuart Lancaster have a chance of making his interim appointment at England's helm into long-term assignment? Will the Pumas be competitive against the SANZAR giants and how long before we see Argentines in southern hemisphere franchises?
We're in for another mammoth year. We hope you'll join us for the ride.
Yours in rugby,