O’Gara named top player in Heineken Cup history

RONAN O’GARA was yesterday left “completely overwhelmed” after being named as the best player in the 15-year history of the Heineken Cup.

The decorated Munster out-half, who has notched a record 1,138 points in a competition he has won twice – in 2006 and 2008 – was yesterday revealed as the winner of the ERC European Player Award.

The ERC gathered a panel of experts, including Irish Examiner columnist Donal Lenihan, to compile a European rugby Dream Team, based on performances in their flagship competitions, the Heineken Cup and the Amlin Challenge Cup, to mark their 15th anniversary.

O’Gara was one of five Irish players selected, alongside Munster team-mates past and present, Anthony Foley and David Wallace, as well as Leinster talisman Brian O’Driscoll and Leicester Tigers’ mercurial full-back Geordan Murphy.

Leinster also had a second representative in Rocky Elsom. The Australian flanker has the least experience of the bunch having played just a single season in Europe.

But he was selected for the huge impact he made in helping Michael Cheika’s side to their maiden Heineken Cup crown in 2009, and is the only southern hemisphere player to feature.

Foley’s inclusion is a testament to the galvanising impact he had on those around him, all the more so given he saw off competition from the likes of Lawrence Dallaglio, Sergio Parisse and Imanol Harinordoquy, to name but a few.

Former Lions coach Ian McGeechan summed up his reason for inclusion thus: “Talking to the Munster players, they all said that Foley was the defining character for them.”

Three players who will contest this year’s final on Saturday make the cut; centre Yannick Jauzion, wing Vincent Clerc and hooker William Servat are all set to line out for Toulouse against Biarritz in the Stade de France.

Two more ex-Toulouse legends are also included: inspirational lock Fabien Pelous, and all-action prop Christian Califano, the latter involved in Toulouse’s victory over Cardiff in the inaugural final in 1996. Stade Francais prop Sylvain Marconnet is the only player chosen who has yet to pick up a winners medal.

The selectors also chose two players who have won both ERC tournaments, in London Wasps backs Josh Lewsey and Rob Howley.

There was a unanimous decision from the panel when it came to selecting the best ERC European Coach Award.

Guy Noves has been at the helm with Toulouse since they made their first foray into the Heineken Cup in 1995, leading his team to six finals, of which they have won three.

Cardiff Blues flanker Martyn Williams, who made his European debut for Pontypridd in 1996, is the ERC European Fair Play winner.

The panel voted for him “as it was widely felt that he is the embodiment of the player who upholds the values of the game of rugby in these European club competitions”.

The nine-man ERC15 selector panel included Ian McGeechan, Lawrence Dallaglio, Ieuan Evans, Fabien Galthie, Donal Lenihan, Michael Lynagh, Stuart Barnes, Stephen Jones and Jacques Verdier.

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