Munster's mixed season finds some consolation
Munster's European travails, which saw them dumped out of the Heineken Cup at the pool stages and in the Challenge Cup at home to Harlequins, have ensured that 2010/11 will go down as a difficult season for the province.
However, the major positive has been their magnificent Magners League form. Tony McGahan has overseen a record of 19 wins from 22 outings, incorporating 44 tries scored and the league's lowest total of 22 tries conceded -- an excellent return considering the injury and player management challenges to be negotiated through a season which was also notable for the number of younger players brought through.
Of course, nothing is won yet -- the Ospreys represent a tough obstacle in Saturday's semi-final, and, even if they clear that, a likely final against Leinster is far from a guarantee of silverware. However, Munster's regular-season excellence, which saw them top the table by 13 points, was reflected in the Magners League Awards, with them scooping three out of the seven on offer.
McGahan was named the Coach of the Season, Ronan O'Gara won the Golden Boot Award for the best percentage return on place-kicks and the soon-to-be-retired Alan Quinlan picked up the Chairman's Award for his outstanding contribution over 15 years with the province.
Munster's captain Paul O'Connell is determined to use the European disappointments as a spur heading into this weekend's clash. The two teams have a fiery relationship, with O'Connell sent off and suspended for four weeks earlier this year after a clash with back-row Jonathan Thomas.
"We have had a few disappointing performances this side of Christmas and no more so than against Harlequins," said O'Connell.
"This weekend is a big shot at redemption for us and we know we need a big performance. A lot of the players know each other from playing internationally and with the Lions. And there have been four games against each other this season, so we both know what to expect. We haven't been in the mode of chasing bonus points in recent weeks, we have just been out there winning games. After the Harlequins game it is important we put in a big performance for ourselves, the staff and management and fans."
Ulster's Ruan Pienaar won the Player's Player Award after his pivotal role in a series of league victories that propelled Brian McLaughlin's men into Friday's semi-final against Leinster.
Dragons back-row Toby Faletau (part of Warren Gatland's plans with Wales) picked up the Young Player of the Season award, with the Ospreys' Ashley Beck getting the Try of the Season prize and Leinster the Specsavers Fairplay award for having the best disciplinary record.
Magners League Awards 2010/11
Players' Player of the Season: Ruan Pienaar (Ulster)
Coach of the Season: Tony McGahan (Munster)
Young Player of the Season: Toby Faletau (Newport Gwent Dragons)
Chairman's Award: Alan Quinlan (Munster)
Try of the Season: Ashley Beck (Ospreys)
Gilbert Golden Boot: Ronan O'Gara (Munster)
Specsavers Fairplay Award: Leinster