ONE Sport looks at the Super 15 season that was...
2012 finish: Champions (14-4)
2011 finish: Tenth (6-1-9)
Season high: Never mind this season, the surprisingly one-sided trouncing of the Sharks in the final was the high point in their history and exorcised their demons from Loftus Versfeld in 2009. But arguably it was their gutsy win over the same opposition in Durban in regular season play proved they were the real deal.
Star man: Aaron Cruden has been around for so long and looks so composed that it's hard to believe he's only 23. His move from the Hurricanes to be reunited with Dave Rennie proved a dream one as he steered the ship to unprecedented success. Honourable mentions to Sonny Bill Williams and raging bull Sona Taumalolo, while Craig Clarke's leadership was outstanding.
On the rise: Tawera Kerr-Barlow. New Zealand rugby is suddenly blessed with a plethora of talented young halfbacks, including the abrasive and hard-running Chief. Southland outside back Robbie Robinson also proved a superb acquisition from the Highlanders.
Could do better: It would be unfair to single anyone out here. Perhaps Hika Elliot will be disappointed at not staking a stronger claim for the All Black hooker jersey when Keven Mealamu and Andrew Hore hang up the boots.
Christmas wishlist: A giant bundle of cotton wool to stick Richard Kahui in over the summer months. The All Blacks star was in fine form until dislocating his shoulder against the Reds, the latest in a cruel run of injuries.
2012 verdict: First time champions playing the most compelling rugby in the franchise's history. And they did it without arguably their best back in Kahui. The agony for Chiefs fans is finally over.
2013 prospects: SBW will be sorely missed but there's an obvious replacement in the fast-improving Andrew Horrell. Otherwise the squad will be much the same, so there's no reason the Chiefs can't repeat the dose.
2012 finish: Semi-finalists (12-6)
2011 finish: Runners-up (13-1-5)
Season high: Not content at running up a cricket score against arch-rivals the Blues the week before, the Crusaders produced the best running rugby of the season - including a thrilling three-try burst before halftime - to seal a crushing 51-18 win over the combative Highlanders.
Star man: Luke Romano. Stood out in a star-studded forward pack, adding the grunt missed by the departure of Brad Thorn. His early injury in the semi-final proved his worth as the Chiefs roughed up an under-powered Crusaders forward pack.
On the rise: Tom Taylor. The son of former All Black Warwick deputised well for the injured Dan Carter in the first part of the season. Already a better place-kicker than much-vaunted superior.
Could do better: Owen Franks. Lost his mojo in 2012 for club and country, culminating in his benching for the final two games. Nowhere near the dominant scrummaging and ball-running force he was in 2011.
Christmas wishlist: The Crusaders' aging superstars need new motivation, and it could come from competition for places from youngsters like Taylor and Matt Todd. A new stadium would be nice too - but that's some way off.
2012 verdict: The history books will show another semi-final appearance but this felt like a year of going nowhere. Promising youngsters failed to live up to the hype while some of the All Black contingent looked disinterested at times.
2013 prospects: Will be there or thereabouts but with McCaw and Carter a year older, can their youngsters inspire a new push for an eighth title?
2012 finish: Eighth (10-6)
2011 finish: Ninth (5-2-9)
Season high: It took some dodgy technology but the Hurricanes saved their best win till last, showing tremendous heart to topple the in-form Chiefs. Also stunned the Crusaders on their home patch on a belated charge to the finals.
Star man: Conrad Smith. What more is there to say about this man? As a captain he was inspirational, guiding his young and unproven team to twice as many wins at they enjoyed last year. As a player he was simply a rock at centre, as always.
On the rise: Beauden Barrett. The 21-year-old's wonderful maturity, tactical awareness and running game meant Aaron Cruden was hardly missed. Will add plenty of Test caps to his debut against Ireland. Honourable mentions to TJ Perenara, Dane Coles and Julian Savea.
Could do better: No one deserves to be singled out here. The improvement from those involved in last year's terrible campaign was impressive across the board.
Christmas wish list: Some extra grunt in the tight five would go along way towards taking the Hurricanes back to finals footy.
2012 verdict: A massive thumbs-up for Mark Hammett for delivering on his promise of turning the franchise around after jettisoning a raft of high-profile players. Indeed, they played some of the most attractive rugby in the competition. About the only disappointment was the consistently-poor crowds at Westpac Stadium.
2013 prospects: Ultimately it was two bad losses at home, in which they gave up big leads to the Cheetahs and Brumbies, that cost them a finals place. Find that consistency next year and they're in business.
2012 finish: Ninth (9-7)
2011 finish: Eighth (8-8)
Season high: The brilliant new indoor stadium provided some memorable moments, including gutsy wins over the Bulls and Blues. But for sheer drama, the round two victory over the Crusaders, in front of a packed house with the scoreboard clock misbehaving couldn't have been scripted better.
Star man: Aaron Smith. Such a revelation was the Manawatu halfback that he swiftly deposed local legend Jimmy Cowan without a word of dissent. Strong, fast, tenacious and armed with a bullet-like pass, he's a man to build a successful team around.
On the rise: John Hardie. Looked for all money like an All Black bolter before injury struck him down just four games in. It's no coincidence the Highlanders' season faltered while the dynamic opponent was on the sidelines.
Could do better: Hardie's replacement James Haskell arrived with big wraps and a debt to repay after England's bad behaviour during the World Cup. But he never adjusted to the pace of Southern Hemisphere rugby, and confirmed the stereotype about English forwards by earning a four-week ban for punching.
Christmas wish list: A fit and firing Colin Slade could be the difference between mid-table and a semi-final spot next year. Showed glimpses of his best early on before breaking his ankle. A fit and healthy back-up in Lima Sopoaga, who was also sidelined for most of the season, would be the icing on the cake.
2012 verdict: Will be disappointed that their form dropped off at the business end again, but a first winning season in almost a decade under second-year coach Jamie Joseph combined with the new stadium has brought the feel-good factor back to the franchise. They're back to being a formidable force at home.
2013 prospects: Have to make the top six to consolidate two years of progress under Joseph. If the injury bug can be kept at bay, they might just sneak in.
2012 finish: 12th (4-12)
2011 finish: Semi-finalists (11-1-6)
Season high: Dear oh dear. In what can be looked back on as the most bizarre result of the season, the Blues somehow managed to topple three-time champions the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld, despite looking like lame ducks much of the time in their own fortress, Eden Park.
Star man: Charlie Faumuina was the rock in a Blues scrum that was actually one of the few parts of their game that worked. The giant prop can cover both sides and was rewarded for a great season with an All Blacks call-up.
On the rise: He's best known for his sevens exploits, but Charles Piutau will make a name for himself in the fifteen-a-side game soon enough. Didn't debut until the penultimate round, but made a huge impact with his elusive power running.
Could do better: Piri Weepu arrived in Auckland with huge expectations but ongoing uncertainty about whether to play him at 9 and 10, combined with weight issues, dogged his campaign from day one. It was always going to be a gamble taking him out of his native Wellington and it backfired in 2012.
Christmas wishlist: Where to start? The annual search for a world class first five goes on. Dan Carter would be nice; instead they've signed up journeyman Chris Noakes. They'll hope new coach and Auckland legend John Kirwan has the same galvanising effect on his players as Jamie Joseph has made at the Highlanders.
2012 verdict: At one stage they briefly sat dead last. Got off on the wrong foot with losses to the Crusaders and Chiefs and never recovered, with constant off-field sideshows and a mountain injury toll further exacerbating their plight.
2013 prospects: A year of rebuilding under a new coach. They can't possibly be as bad again next year. Or can they?