MUNSTER rugby went back to the future as the province celebrated a roller-coaster season.
The team narrowly lost a Heineken Cup semi-final to Clermont-Auvergne last month in a year marked by the emergence of new talents and the likely departure of several rugby legends key to its two previous Heineken Cup triumphs.
Munster yesterday hosted their 2013 season awards at the Maryborough Hotel in Cork as blistering new talents, Simon Zebo and Conor Murray, were hailed as holding the key to a third Heineken Cup triumph.
But there were warm tributes to Marcus Horan (35) who has retired and Ronan O'Gara (36) and Doug Howlett (35), whose 2014 participation remains in doubt.
Flying Cork winger Simon Zebo took the Young Player of the Year award and told the Irish Independent it was a season "of ups and downs".
"It was great to do so well for Munster in the early part of the season and then to play for Ireland in the win over Wales. But the injury (a broken foot) was a bit of a downer."
The Player of the Year award went to popular Tipperary flanker Tommy O'Donnell, to the obvious delight of his assembled family, parents Tom and Mary and brother Gearoid.
The player, who made his Munster debut in 2007, admitted that his award meant so much given that he had served an apprenticeship under the great David Wallace.
Fittingly, his triumph was toasted by the capacity crowd with a vintage French white called 'Thomond Reserve' from a vineyard in which several Munster stars now hold a stake.
There was an especially warm cheer for Murray who is set to jet out with the British and Irish Lions for the tour to Australia. Former Ireland and Lions star Donal Lenihan said that, given the talent available within the squad, a series triumph is achievable.
Murray, who turned 24 on April 20, admitted he is still struggling to come to terms with the fact Lions coach Warren Gatland selected him.
"I would never have dreamed in 2011 that I'd be heading on a Lions tour having played for Ireland and Munster over an entire season," he said.
The Munster Rugby Awards were sponsored by the Irish Independent and Editor Stephen Rae paid tribute to "the indomitable Munster spirit".
"I'm sure we'd all have hoped the clock ticked on a little longer in Montpellier. Here's to a new season and much hope for further success," he said.
The newspaper was also represented at the awards ceremony by Managing Editor Michael Denieffe, Operations Editor Ian Mallon and Group Marketing Manager Geoff Lyons.