Picking up the top honour at yesterday’s annual Munster Rugby Awards at the Clayton Silver Springs, which took into account a player vote and a fan poll, Earls, 30, completed a career sweep of all the eligible player awards having also won the academy and young player awards during his 150-game career in red.
Despite only playing nine games for Munster so far this season, the exciting wing has been playing the best rugby of his career for club and country and has been a standout performer as the province reached last week’s Champions Cup semi-finals and have qualified for next month’s quarter-finals of the Guinness PRO14 play-offs. Earls pipped Jean Kleyn and Rory Scannell to the prestigious award, won last year by Tyler Bleyendaal.
“I do appreciate getting this award off my team-mates but I’m a team man and I’d prefer to get a small medal at the end of the season with a trophy,” Earls said during an on-stage interview with master of ceremonies Matt Cooper.
“I know it’s cheesy but we’ve had a lot of outstanding performances throughout the year and I’m grateful to the lads for picking me.
“Sunday (against Racing) was my sixth European semi-final, let alone the rest of them and we’re an ambitious group of players. We thrashed out the other day (the semi-final defeat) and we know what we have to do and what it takes to hopefully get to a final and go on and win a final. I’ve no doubt in my mind that this squad is capable of it.”
Reflecting on a Grand Slam-winning campaign with Ireland in which Earls had a huge impact and earned a nomination for Six Nations player of the championship, he added: “It was massive. It was my first major trophy as a professional and I had to wait 10 years for it. It took a lot of hard work and I enjoyed it immensely but you enjoy it for a short period of time and it’s onto the next week.
“I suppose all these things we’ll appreciate more when we’re retired.”
This was a season in which Earls, also in the running for the Rugby Players Ireland Players’ Player of the Year award, revealed he had sought the advice of mentalist Keith Barry and he said: “It’s all true but I’m not going to give away my secrets.”
After a debut Munster season wrecked by injury, Sammy Arnold’s recognition as Young Player of the Year will have felt all the more special. The 22-year-old has established himself as a key member of the Munster backline since finally breaking free from injury last November.
Double Six Nations winner Gill Bourke took the Munster Women’s Player of The Year award for her leadership role in the province’s reclaiming of the Interprovincial title.
The hooker also played for Munster in the inaugural Women’s Barbarian fixture and later became a Barbarian herself, facing the British Army.
Lock Fineen Wycherley received the John McCarthy Award for Greencore Munster Rugby Academy Player of the Year in his second season. The Bantry man will move on to a development contract next season.
There was a repeat recipient of the Referee of the Year as Joy Neville was recognised for another landmark year in which she took charge of the Women’s Rugby World Cup final between New Zealand and England and become the first female to referee in both the European Challenge Cup and Guinness PRO14.
A standing ovation went to the late Anthony Foley, whose career as player, captain and coach with the province and Ireland was recognised by his induction into Munster’s Hall of Fame.
His wife Olive Foley received the honour on behalf of the family for a rugby legend who died suddenly in October 2016. Yesterday’s event saw all proceeds raised on the day going towards the Irish Heart Foundation, Munster Rugby’s nominated charity for the current season.
“While inducting Axel posthumously into our Hall of Fame is a circumstance we never envisaged, all can agree it is an honour that would never have eluded him, and there can be little doubt that such a figurehead is more than worthy of the honour,” Foley’s citation read.
The day’s prize-giving reflecting the broad spectrum of the game in the province, from grassroots to professional rugby, first-time Munster Schools Senior Cup winners Glenstal Abbey were crowned School of the Year, the Minis Section of the Year went to Killarney RFC and the Youths section of the year award travelled to Tipperary and Newport RFC.
Both the junior and senior club awards went to Limerick outfits, Richmond RFC named Junior Club of the Year in their 90th anniversary year while record-breaking Old Crescent walked off with the Senior prize, following their promotion to Division 2A of the All-Ireland League, the only team across all five senior divisions to complete an entire campaign unbeaten.