Persistence pays off for Munster’s gentle giant

Donnacha Ryan capped a remarkable season for Munster and Ireland when he was named the province’s Player of the Year at the 2012 Munster Rugby Awards in association with Irish Examiner on Saturday.

Ryan, 28, had been one of four Munster players nominated by their team-mates to be considered for the annual award in a poll of Irish Examiner readers. That vote was then taken into consideration by a panel of judges comprised of representatives from Munster Rugby and the Irish Examiner.

The versatile forward won the award ahead of fly-half Ronan O’Gara, team captain Paul O’Connell and last year’s victor James Coughlan.

“I’m a bit embarrassed to be up here,” Ryan said as he accepted the trophy.

“We’re nothing without our team-mates, we go out and play for each other and you can’t win this sort of award with them.”

Ryan had earlier in the evening played in the 36-8 win over Ulster in his 100th appearance and he paid tribute to the encouragement he had received earlier in his career from recently retired Ireland team-mates Jerry Flannery and David Wallace.

Both men, along with fellow retirees John Hayes and Mick O’Driscoll, were recognised at the awards ceremony for their outstanding contributions to the Munster cause and Ryan credited Flannery for convincing him to persevere in the professional game when he had doubted his ability in the past.

This season has been a testament to Flannery’s faith in the back-row/lock from Nenagh. Ryan started the campaign by earning his place on Declan Kidney’s World Cup squad and returned from the tournament in New Zealand to get the nod from Munster director of coaching Tony McGahan to start alongside O’Connell in the second row for the Heineken Cup pool phases.

Ryan had to settle for a place on the Ireland bench during the Six Nations campaign but having made impressive contributions as a replacement, he became the obvious choice to replace O’Connell when he succumbed to injury against France in Paris, emerging from the championship with a new two-year IRFU contract that will keep him with Munster until 2014.

Joining Ryan as an award winner was Peter O’Mahony, who picked up the Young Player-of-the-Year trophy following a season in which the 22-year-old back-row made both his Heineken Cup and Ireland debuts. O’Mahony hit the ground running in Europe with a starring role in the opening pool victory over Northampton in November and his rapid acclimatisation to rugby’s highest levels was recognised by Ireland head coach Kidney, who gave him his first cap as a substitute in the home win over Italy.

The John McCarthy Award for Academy Player-of-the-Year went to another back-row, 22-year-old Dave O’Callaghan, who was handed his Heineken Cup debut as a substitute in the final pool game in January, the remarkable 51-36 victory over Northampton in Milton Keynes. O’Callaghan, who will undergo knee surgery at the end of the season to alleviate a long-standing tendinitis problem, also featured strongly in Munster A’s B&I Cup final success.

Also honoured during Munster Rugby’s gala evening at Thomond Park was Highfield’s Heather O’Brien, winner of the 2012 Women’s Player-of-the-Year award following a season in which she starred for both Munster and Ireland.

The newest inductee into the Munster Hall of Fame was former PBC Cork, Cork Constitution and Garryowen full-back Ray Hennessy. A two-time Munster Senior Cup winner with Cork Con, Hennessy captained his club to the second of them in 1961 in a memorable final against Garryowen.

An Irish triallist, he was also capped 10 times by Munster.

Earlier in the evening, former Munster player John Lacey picked up the Referee of the Year award, Limerick’s Ardscoil Rís were named School of the Year, Richmond won Junior Club of the Year and Cashel RFC were crowned Senior Club of the Year.

Killarney RFC got the nod for Club Mini Section of the Year and the Youth Section award went to Bruff RFC.

Also acknowledged on the night were the contributions of departing players Tomás O’Leary, Lifeimi Mafi, Peter Borlase, Tom Gleeson, Declan Cusack and Denis Fogarty, who even marked his departure to French club Aurillac by winning a prize in the raffle — a pair of Munster season tickets.

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