O'Brien the leading Irish light
June 9, 2011
Leinster's Sean O'Brien parades the Heineken Cup following his side's victory over Northampton.
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As the dust settles on another campaign, our Irish correspondent Hugh Farrelly hands out some well deserved awards.
Irish Player Of The Season - Sean O'Brien (Leinster)
It could not be anyone else. There were others such as Jonathan Sexton, Ronan O'Gara, Cian Healy and Fergus McFadden who dazzled over the past nine months but the man from the GAA heartland of Tullow in County Carlow was phenomenal throughout and has graduated from valued Leinster squad player to world-class back-row in one campaign.
Overseas Player of the Season - Isa Nacewa (Leinster)
Narrowly pips club-mate Richardt Strauss whose energy levels belie a physique that lulls opposition hookers into a false sense of security. But Nacewa's consistent capacity to thrill and inspire from fullback set the tone for Leinster's Heineken Cup surge where his bravery in defence was just as impressive. Played 32 matches for the province and was Joe Schmidt's go-to guy when the international stars were away - his brief appearance for Fiji in 2003 has denied the All Blacks access to one of the game's great attacking talents.
Coach of the Season - Joe Schmidt (Leinster)
The self-effacing New Zealander arrived from Clermont openly questioning his suitability for a head coaching role and struggles in September provided a stern examination of those credentials. However, Schmidt responded splendidly, sticking to his principles and overseeing a style of rugby that was impossible to resist. The second-half performance in the Heineken Cup Final in Cardiff was wonderful testament to the belief he instilled in his players and, from self-doubting assistant, Schmidt is now seen as a future Ireland supremo.
Backroom Star of the Season - Greg Feek (Leinster & Ireland)
The former All Black prop made a low-key entry to the Ireland coaching scene but has had a hugely significant effect on an Ireland scrum that is now centred on his Leinster propping duo of Cian Healy and Mike Ross. After difficulties in November and the early rounds of the Six Nations, Feek has improved body positions, technical adjustments and the critical aspect of unified effort from all eight forwards to the point where Ireland travel to the World Cup with a scrum to be respected.
Find of the Season - Conor Murray (Munster)
Close observers of Munster and All-Ireland League rugby knew Murray was a handy player but no-one expected him to adjust to the senior professional game so quickly. Well over six foot, Murray carries a physical presence to go with composed passing and kicking games and his progress since March has been startling - to the point where it could get him on the plane to New Zealand 2011.
Try of the Season - Isa Nacewa (Leinster v Leicester)
The Tigers came to Dublin determined to upset the odds by making the Heineken Cup semi-final and were threatening to spoil Leinster's party until Nacewa did his bit. Squashed onto the left-hand touchline, the fullback still managed to squirm his way past a clutch of defenders with eel-like efficiency for the game's crucial try. Spectacular.
Still Got It Award - Ronan O'Gara (Munster)
Had been unwisely written off in many quarters with the impressive progression of Sexton but O'Gara had a superbly consistent season, for province and country. Sexton's star turn against England in the Six Nations and 28-point tour-de-force in the Heineken Cup Final make him the front-runner for the Ireland No.10 jersey at the World Cup but O'Gara's enduring quality can never be discounted.
Perseverance Award - James Coughlan (Munster)
After ploughing away in the All-Ireland League for year-upon-year into his late 20s, Coughlan began to break into the Munster senior team at the end of last season and, this term, announced himself as a quality professional, keeping Denis Leamy off the team in the process. His performances were rewarded by his province making him their Player of the Year and Coughlan should get a chance in Ireland's World Cup warm-up games to see if he can take it to the next level.
Golden Ticket Award - Connacht
Finally, Cinderella makes it to the ball. It may have taken Leinster to get them there, but Connacht's Heineken Cup debut next season has the potential to reignite rugby out west. Eric Elwood has been a galvanising presence as head coach and, although they have lost some quality players like Sean Cronin, Jamie Hagan and Fionn Carr, facing Toulouse in the Sportsground next season has to generate interest and revenue for Irish rugby's poor relation.
Braveheart Award - Michael Bradley
Given the woeful record of Scotland clubs in the professional era, taking over at Edinburgh represents a monumental challenge for Bradley. Although he is well used to working with sparse resources from his time with Connacht, the task now is to get players and supporters to believe in a franchise that has consistently underwhelmed.
Lazarus Award - Ulster
Making the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup for the first time since 1999, as well as reaching the semi-finals of the Magners League, represents significant progress up north. They relied on a Springbok injection to do so but Ruan Pienaar and Johann Muller justified the considerable outlay required to bring them to Ulster. However, the most encouraging aspect to Ulster's advance has been the good work done by their Academy and the likes of Nevin Spence, Craig Gilroy and Luke Marshall can help to keep the province on the right track.
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