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Breaking down the greatest year of international debutants in rugby history

BY Philip Bendon  ·  Wednesday May 17, 2023

As the great Andy Bernard from the Office once said, “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.”

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Despite some doom and gloom surrounding the funny oval ball sport that all readers of this page love. When one takes a step back and reflects on just where the sport is as a product, it is hard to argue that some of the greatest talents we have ever seen are currently strutting their stuff on the international stage.

This line of thinking led to a burning question. Which year of the professional era had the most influential list of international debutants?

Having dove deep into the archives, there were certainly several contenders for the throne. The challenge of selecting just one year was made somewhat easier, given all the players on this list are still playing to a high level and are likely to feature at the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Unlike our American Football brethren, it was not as simple as looking back through previous draft classes to see which prospects had the most fruitful of careers. But instead, it was a process of watching footage dating back to 1995 to decide which players have had the greatest impact on the game. Whilst several years had some crazy stars breakthrough, 2002, for example, had Matt Giteau, Bakkies Botha, Nathan Sharpe, Jean de Villiers, Paul O’Connell, Tony Woodcock, Martin Castrogiovanni, Kevin Mealamu, Sergio Parisse and Gethin Jenkins. Whilst a year later, a wizard called Dan Carter would be joined by a world-class flanker called Schalk Burger and two long-term All Blacks teammates called Ma’a Nonu and Mils Muliaina in making their debuts, despite these fine vintages, one year stood above the rest.

Based on our research, the best year of international debutants was 2012. Simply put, the list of players who made their debut a year after New Zealand lifted the World Cup was phenomenal.

So, without further ado, here is the list of players who made their debut in 2012. Let us know if you think there was a better year of international debutants in the comments below or on Facebook.

Owen Farrell – 106 England Test Caps and 6 Lions Test Caps

Following in the footsteps of iconic Rugby League father Andy, current England captain Owen Farrell has been one of the top flyhalves in the world game over the past decade. A competitive animal who by all accounts drives standards for both Saracens and England, the 31-year-old sits 3rd on the all-time points scorers list behind Johnny Wilkinson and Dan Carter with 1187 career points.

Peter O’Mahony – 94 Ireland Test Caps and 1 Lions Test Cap

A true warrior in every sense of the word, the long-time Munster captain is a throwback to the glory days of the Irish province. Narky, unrelenting, and niggly, O’Mahony is not only an exceptional player but a nuisance for the opposition to deal with. Leading by example, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in Munster who wouldn’t follow him to the ends of the earth. On the international stage, however, is where he has enjoyed the most success winning four Six Nations (including two Grand Slam titles) as well as recording historic Irish victories, most notably over the All Blacks. Yet, perhaps his biggest accomplishment is holding off the hordes of freakishly talented backrows coming through the Irish system.

Eben Etzebeth – 110 South African Test Caps

Quite possibly the greatest secondrow in the game’s history, Etzebeth is an enforcer of the highest order. Dominating opponents in defence whilst being deceptively skilful in attack, Etzebeth picked up where Bakkies Botha left off as the Bok’s hard man. Remarkably still just 31 years old, there is a very real possibility that he could eclipse 150 test caps before it is all said and done.

Siya Kolisi – 75 South African Test Caps

Transcending the sport, Kolisi is arguably the game’s biggest global superstar at the current moment. Leading the Springboks to the 2019 World Cup, As the first black Springbok captain, it was fitting that 24 years after Nelson Mandela joined Francois Pienaar at Ellis Park to lift the trophy in front of the new South Africa, Kolisi would do the same wearing the iconic number six shirt. As a player, Kolisi is a dynamic force at the breakdown, in the carry and at the tackle point. In short, he is the heartbeat of the Bok set-up and is now facing a race against time to be fit for the 2023 edition due to a knee injury.

Duane Vermeulen – 63 South African Test Caps

Joining his fellow Bok forwards is the uncompromising Vermeulen, who was a relative latecomer to international rugby, making his debut at 25-years-old. Having been overlooked for section despite being in Springbok training squads since 2010, the man nicknamed ‘Thor’ was unleashed on international rugby in 2012, and it didn’t take long for him to make his presence felt. Picking up a man of the match award in the Boks clash with England on the end-of-year tour. Two years later, the number eight was shortlisted for the IRB World Player of the Year award and, in 2019, became a World Cup winner.

Beauden Barrett – 112 New Zealand Test Caps

Quite possibly the most dynamic playmaker of the past decade, Barrett would win back-to-back World Player of the Year awards in 2016 and 2017, having taken the reigns as the All Blacks first choice flyhalf in the wake of Dan Carter’s retirement. Equally adept at either flyhalf or fullback, the 31-year-old remains one of the most important players to the All Blacks heading into this year’s Rugby World Cup.

Aaron Smith – 114 New Zealand Test Caps

Straddling three generations of world-class All Black halfback pairings, starting with his combination with Dan Carter before later linking up with Barrett and now Richie Mo’unga. Smith is almost certainly the greatest All Black scrumhalf in history and possibly the best international rugby has ever seen (Antoine Dupont will have a say in this). Continually excellent since making his debut, Smith has rarely been pushed for the starting number 9 shirt when fit. Now 34 years old, he is likely on the back nine of his career but remains in tip-top shape and will play a crucial role at this year’s World Cup.

Joe Marler – 83 England Test Caps

One of rugby’s great characters, Marler’s persona is matched only by his sublime skills in the world of forward play. A powerful scrummager, dominant mauler and big hitter, Marler is an example of a modern-day loosehead. Had it not been for a short-lived retirement and several suspensions, Marler, like Henderson, would have hit 100 test caps. Whether he will be available for this year’s World Cup remains to be seen, but like many great characters, he will be sorely missed when he does eventually hang up his boots.

Mako Vunipola – 71 Test Caps

Marler’s long-time front-row buddy was, at one point, one of the best looseheads in the game. Like his brother Billy, Mako is a dynamic ball carrier who mixes in subtle skills with a not-so-subtle power game. A linchpin of Saracens and England’s success over the years as well as being a three times Lions tourist with nine caps to his name, Vunipola may well go down as the best England has ever seen at the position. Sitting on 71 test caps for the red roses, the 32-year-old still has plenty left in the tank to add to this tally and should feature at the world cup later this year.

Liam Williams – 84 Wales Test Caps and 5 Lions Test Caps

A silky smooth operator who played a key role in the glory days of Warren Gatland’s first spell in charge. Whilst not quite at the peak of his powers, the 32-year-old is still the best option Wales have at fullback heading into the World Cup. Perhaps best known for starting one of the greatest-ever Lions tries against the All Blacks in 2017, Williams has sparked many an attack for Wales that has proven to be the difference between winning and losing.

Michael Hooper – 124 Australia Caps

A stalwart in a rather turbulent time for the Wallabies, Hooper has pretty much always been first choice when fit and available. Whilst Australian Rugby has battled turmoil both on and off the pitch over the past decade, Hooper has led them with distinction and is undoubtedly one of the most respected figures in the game. As a player he is an absolute menace at the breakdown whilst also offering a dynamic ball carrying option as an extra backline player due to his incredible pace for a backrow. His 124-test caps are a testament to his longevity and his importance to Australian Rugby. Whilst he will almost certainly feature at the World Cup, he has hinted at retirement at the competition’s conclusion. In other words, enjoy him whilst you can Wallaby fans as players like him don’t come around every day.

Dane Coles – 82 New Zealand Test Caps

A world player of the Year nominee in 2016, the 36-year-old hooker played a key role in the All Blacks’ successful World Cup defence in 2015. Bursting onto the scene as a do it all dynamic hooker in the mould of the only hooker to ever win the award in Keith Woods. Cole established himself as the first choice for the All Blacks in 2014, displacing incumbent Kevin Mealamu. Unfortunately, injury has curtailed his career, and he is another player who, if he had remained healthy, would’ve been a 100-cap player.

Sam Cane – 86 New Zealand Test Caps

An All Black captain who had arguably the toughest task in the game’s history, taking over from the great Richie McCaw, Cane has had his fair share of doubters over the years. A hard-hitting backrow and inspirational leader, Cane doesn’t take a backwards step and has faced stiff competition for the Black number seven shirt over the years. A near lock to make the All Blacks World Cup squad, Cane will be looking to recapture the trophy that his side lost in 2019.

Brodie Retallick – 100 New Zealand Test Caps

Forming possibly the greatest ever secondrow partnership with Sam Whitelock since making his debut in 2012, Retallick is a key component to the All Black machine. Winning the 2014 World Player of the Year award as a 23-year-old, he became the first and only secondrow to date to win the award. Retallick Played every minute of their 2015 World Cup knockout games, Retallick will once again play a key role for Ian Foster’s squad at this year’s tournament.

Stuart Hogg – 100 Scotland Test Caps

The greatest Scottish player of the professional era, 30-year-old Hogg, is calling it a day at the conclusion of this year’s World Cup. Leading Scottish Rugby during a period of major difficulty, Hogg leaves the blue jersey in a far better place than he found it. Routinely one of the very few Scottish players capable of making a world XV, the Exeter Chief will leave a hole in the Scottish backline that will be tough to fill. At the peak of his powers, Hogg was a back-to-back Six Nations Player of the year winner in 2016 and 2017, as well as being a three-time Lions tourist.

Honourable mentions:

Rhys Webb – 40 Wales Test Caps and 2 Lions Test Caps
Alex Cuthbert – 57 Wales Test Caps and 1 Lions Test Cap
Julian Savea – 54 New Zealand Test Caps
Iain Henderson – 72 Ireland Test Caps

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