It's hard to believe that a whole year has passed since I wrote this article last year, but I guess as they say, time flies when you're having fun. And 2011 was certainly an enjoyable year as far as rugby was concerned.
The highlight undoubtedly came in the World Cup which produced some outstanding rugby and high quality across all involved. However, we were also treated to some good rugby in the lead up in the form of the Tri Nations and Six Nations, as well as the various domestic and club competitions.
Amongst these competitions there have been various players who have stood out above the rest, and this article looks to acknowledge those players across a variety of categories.
One last note, whilst reading, keep in mind that this is simply an opinion piece and wasn't influenced in any way by the IRB Awards or the various country's awards.
At just 22 years of age Sam Warburton grabbed the rugby world's attention at Rugby World Cup 2011, playing far beyond his age and experience, emerging as one of, if not, the best openside flanker at the tournament.
He was a surprise selection at captain for Wales after Matthew Rees was ruled out of the tournament with injury, and many had questioned whether a 22-year-old with only a handful of tests could lead his nation on the world's biggest stage. Indeed, the team had been struggling in recent years, and no one expected much from them.
But none of that will be remembered now, as Wales put on a clinic making it all the way to the semifinals, proving desperately unlucky not to advance to the final.
And it was Warburton who was key in this success. His work rate was immense and was reminiscent of a younger McCaw at the breakdown, effecting many turnovers for his team.
He will perhaps be better remembered for the controversial red card he received during his side's semifinal against France, but that should in no way negate the impact this kid had on the game.
Watch out for him—he's going to be good.
Not so much a comeback, but definitely a change in fortunes. A cameo performance in the World Cup Final saw Donald become something of a hero in New Zealand, something that was almost unimaginable 12 months earlier.
Flashback to Hong Kong 2010, the All Blacks only loss of the year against a well polished Australian team.
It was a below average effort from the All Blacks. The forwards weren't imposing themselves on the game the way they had all year, the defence was awful and the backs seemed rusty, not gelling at all well.
Yet it was replacement flyhalf Stephen Donald who was made the scapegoat for this loss.
Two poor kicks and a high tackle were all anyone seemed to remember. And indeed it was a forgettable night for the man.
But he wasn't the sole reason for the loss. No one seemed to remember the missed tackles from Ma'a Nonu or Isaia Toeava which led to tries, or the general lack of all-around intensity in the game.
His initial selection had been questionable, with many preferring Colin Slade and Aaron Cruden, but the treatment he received was a large overreaction.
It seemed he had played his last game for the All Blacks.
But as fate would have it, injuries to Daniel Carter, Colin Slade and Aaron Cruden, saw the All Blacks in need of their fourth-string flyhalf in the middle of the Rugby World Cup Final.
He came on and gave a typical Donald performance. He was physical, ran hard and tackled courageously—all characteristics he has shown throughout his career. It was a strong performance, capped with his kicking of what turned out to be the winning penalty goal.
His performance can best be summed up by the Facebook page, "Sorry Stephen Donald, we were wrong."
Jerome Kaino has forever been recognised for his defensive abilities, but 2011 saw him take this to a new level, being the key man in the rock solid All Black defence.
He gets through plenty of work on defence, making plenty of tackles and positioning himself well to make these.
But it's not so much this that wins him the award—it's more the way he tackles.
Every Kaino tackle is bone-crunching and more often than not sends his opponent backwards.
His defensive efforts can be best summed up from one moment in the All Blacks semifinal against Australia, where Digby Ioane seemingly only had to fall over to score, and Kaino came from nowhere, literally picking up Ioane and throwing him back a couple of metres.
The mastermind behind the All Blacks World Cup victory, Graham Henry, wins the Coach of the Year award.
Never has an All Black coach had such pressure on them. A 24-year World Cup drought had New Zealand hungry, and nothing but a win would satisfy this hunger. Add to this the fact that Henry had failed in 2007 and the fact that the All Blacks had been such a dominant force in 2010, it was pressure like no other has felt.
But he rose to the occasion. He wasn't afraid to make big decisions, changing from what had worked the year before to find a spot for the form players. And it worked for him.
He was the man who decided a year ago to play an open game style similar to what became known as the "Otago Style," a move that couldn't have gone down any better. This style requires a high fitness level, which the team obtained and in the end saw shine through as it gave them the ability to tackle seemingly endlessly. He also had a plan B, the option to play a tight game, something that a lot of the other teams have lacked in recent years.
Technically his team was the best in the world, and this can only be put down to a good coach.
But above all, it's his record that speaks for itself. Henry leaves the All Blacks as one of their most successful coaches, but it will be his feats in 2011 that he will forever be remembered for.
While there was no team that was consistent right across the year, the All Blacks proved to be the best of the bunch, and their World Cup win confirms their title of Team of the Year.
Expectations were high heading into 2011 coming off one of the most dominant seasons in international rugby history in 2010, proving near unbeatable, with the only slipup coming in the two-point last minute loss to the Wallabies in Hong Kong.
And all started well for the All Blacks. After an initial rusty performance against Fiji, they delivered a very good performance against the Springboks, albeit a second-string Springbok team, and a reasonably dominant performance over the Wallabies at Eden Park.
They would short in the Republic, losing 18-5 in a game where they couldn't finish despite creating most of the play, then lost again in Australia in a game where the Wallabies held dominance for three quarters of the game and deserved their win.
Still, expectations remained high for the World Cup, knowing that key players were still to return to the team.
They cruised through their pool, never looking like losing, playing the best rugby of all the teams at the tournament. Their dominance was shown by the fact that their closest game came against the eventual runners-up, France, a game they won by 20 points.
Their quarterfinal against Argentina saw them play a tighter game that saw them gain dominance up front that the Pumas couldn't contend with. Many felt that this was an average performance, but realistically, the All Blacks never really looked like losing this game.
They moved on to play the Wallabies in the semifinals, and finally we saw what this All Black team could really do. Despite the fact that they only scored one try, it was a completely dominant performance. Not since 1996 against Australia in Wellington has an All Black team been so dominant over such opposition.
It seemed that no matter how close they got, the Wallabies just couldn't crack the All Blacks line, and that was the key. They won 20-6 and a final berth at last.
The final was a close hard fought game, but the All Blacks held strong and went on to win by just one point in what was one of the most gutsy performances in World Cup history.
A good year for the All Blacks, and despite two losses, still hold the best record during 2011, add a World Cup win to that, and it's hard to deny them the Team of the Year award.
There were many contenders for this, the top award. Ma'a Nonu, Sam Warburton, David Pocock and Richie McCaw amongst others all give good cases.
But it could only be Jerome Kaino. He was a colossus for the All Blacks this year, not only on defence but also on attack.
He seemed to go forward every time he engaged in contact, whether it be on attack or while making a tackle. And he made sure he got through plenty of work too.
For many years he had been touted as one to watch in New Zealand rugby. His talent was clear, but he struggled to find consistency in his game. It was in 2010 that he finally imposed himself on the game and was one of the most important figures in the All Blacks dominance.
2011 saw him rise to new heights, proving to be the best player for the world champion All Blacks.
But perhaps his best value can best be seen from the All Blacks loss to the Wallabies in the Tri Nations.
Kaino was the only member of the squad unavailable for the game, and consequently, the All Blacks didn't have the same dominance at the contact area—the main reason for the loss. Had Kaino been there, it would have been a whole different ball game, showing just how good this man has been in 2011.