O’Gara caps memorable year with top award

MUNSTER fly-half Ronan O’Gara was last night named Guinness Rugby Writers of Ireland Player of the Year.

The award completes a memorable 12 months on and off the pitch for O’Gara, which began at a crossroads following a sub-par World Cup campaign and the publication of false rumours about his personal life.

But the 31-year-old bounced back in remarkable style, captaining Munster in the pool stages of a Heineken Cup campaign that eventually led to their second victory last May.

O’Gara also skippered Ireland for the first time in the Six Nations clash with England last March.

He received his award at a function in the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin last night, where his Munster side won the Dave Guiney Award for Team of the Year.

There was also joy for Cork Constitution, the club where O’Gara came to prominence, as they were voted Club of the Year on the back of their All-Ireland League success last season.

Former Leinster and Ireland coach Roly Meates won the Tom Rooney Award for his exceptional contribution to the game, while Sean Lynch and Mick English were the latest inductees to the Guinness Hall of Fame.

Meanwhile, O’Gara is likely to be named at fly-half when Declan Kidney announces his first team as Ireland coach today, ahead of Saturday’s clash with Canada.

Experimentation is unlikely to be on Kidney’s agenda, as Ireland look to gain enough points from their autumn schedule to stay in the top eight of the world rankings.

Scotland are narrowly trailing Ireland in ninth, just 0.27 of a ranking point behind, and Kidney’s side will be looking to maintain the status quo to ensure an easier draw for the 2011 World Cup.

Munster scrum-half Tomás O Leary and Ospreys wing Tommy Bowe were the only absentees from Ireland training yesterday.

O’Leary continues to recover from a minor foot injury, while Bowe was rested having played for the Ospreys in their 23-19 defeat to London Irish in the EDF Energy Cup.

Elsewhere, Canada arrived in Limerick yesterday after a circuitous 14-hour journey from Portugal, where they defeated the hosts in two Tests.

Only veteran Morgan Williams survives from the squad that last played Ireland in 2000, a 27-27 draw in Toronto — and even he is only involved due to an injury crisis at scrum-half. Coach Kieran Crowley said he has no worries about putting the 32-year-old former Stade Francais man, who retired after last year’s World Cup and has been working as Canada’s skills coach, in the firing line.

“Morgan’s been playing all the time (with James Bay) back in Victoria and certainly is match-fit and ready to run,” he said. “And he wants to be part of the team, which is the most important thing. There’s no substitute for experience.”

Glasgow Warriors prop Kevin Tkachuk is the only other member of a young Canadian squad who is likely to be familiar to Irish fans, though a number of their players ply their trade in the English first division.

These include Bedford Blues full-back James Pritchard, scrum-half Ed Fairhurst of Cornish Pirates and club-mate Justin Mensah-Coker.

Ireland won’t be the only ones with World Cup rankings on their mind — Canada will be looking to lay the foundations for a home and away series with the USA that will make or break their hopes of reaching New Zealand.

Captain Pat Riordan said he has been particularly pleased by the improvement in his side’s defending since the summer’s Churchill Cup, where they gave Scotland A and Argentina A plenty of trouble.

However, he is aware tougher challenges await: “Maybe it’s not (Portugal) the dynamic attack that we will see over the next three weeks, but we still didn’t make unforced errors in defence like in the past. The guys shooting out of the line, things like that.”

“We were confident in our defence so we didn’t have to take the penalties because we knew we could stop them. And that just builds up onto this week coming up — (Ireland) and then Wales and Scotland.”

Elsewhere, Munster have announced a four-day programme of events to accompany their historic sold-out clash with New Zealand in Thomond Park on November 18.

The programme kicks off on Saturday November 15, where fans will be able to watch Ireland’s clash with the All Blacks on big screens in The Dugout, a new venue in Thomond Park’s east stand, with match tickets available to be won.

On Sunday, four members of the All Blacks squad will open the flagship Munster Rugby Store and the Munster Interactive Museum, before online prizewinners will have the chance to meet the quartet at a special signing session.

Later that evening, guests and prizewinners will attend a Lane Production of the world-renowned Alone It Stands, a play by John Breen which commemorates the famous Munster win over the All Blacks in 1978, in LIT’s Millennium Theatre.

On Monday, a Munster Rugby breakfast briefing will take place in the hospitality suite of the stadium’s east stand, with Munster’s Tony Buckley and All Blacks coach Graham Henry joined by players from both sides for a Q&A.

Finally, on the day of the match, Taoiseach Brian Cowen and IRFU president John Lyons will officially open Thomond Park ahead of the 7.30pm kick-off. Visit www.munsterrugby.ie for more details.

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