Johann Muller and Ruan Pienaar were hailed as heroes at last night’s Heineken-sponsored Ulster Rugby Awards in Belfast’s Culloden Hotel.
The South Africans, whose impact since joining Ulster has been massive, lifted the three biggest prizes of the night.
Muller walked off with the Heineken Personality of the Year plus the Ulster Rugby Supporters Club’s Player of the Season accolade, while Pienaar — the Magners League Players’ Player of the Year — made it a superb double by scooping the Bank of Ireland Ulster Player of the Year.
Pienaar also was named in the 2010/11 Magners League Dream Team so it has been quite a first season for the 2007 World Cup winner.
Members of the 320-strong audience rose as one in salutation as Muller went forward to collect the night’s final award, Heineken Personality of the Year, the citation for which lauded his leadership and work on and off the pitch in what has been a memorable first campaign for the former Springboks captain.
Muller, recruited from Natal Sharks last summer, has done exactly what he was signed to do, exacting the highest standards of those around him and inspiring them to new levels, whilst simultaneously proving a superb ambassador for Ulster.
Off the pitch the highly-principled second-row giant has carried out a huge number for sponsors. Off-stage he has worked within the local community, often in his own time and in an admirably low-profile manner.
His intelligence, integrity, warmth, sense of humour have seen him endear himself to everyone involved with Ulster Rugby, with fellow-players, coaching and administrative staff and supporters having taken to him from day one.
The ease and honesty with which he relates to the media has earned its members’ respect, too.
Muller’s other award, voted for by members of the URSC, saw the legendary Jack Kyle present him with a magnificent trophy designed by local artist and supporters’ club stalwart Bob Sloan, and a Frederique Constant watch supplied by McNeilly’s Jewellers.
His decision of Muller’s fellow-countryman, Pienaar, to join Ulster came as a major shock in rugby circles throughout the world.
At the time Ulster’s Director of Rugby, David Humphreys, who masterminded the coup which brought the Springbok to Belfast, said Pienaar’s recruitment was a statement of intent.
It certainly was and Pienaar has not disappointed having played a key role in much-improved Ulster’s campaign to date. His on-field ability has been a source of inspiration to his colleagues. By nature he is a winner, a fact mirrored by a never-say-die attitude which has seen him bag crucial points at the death.
Last night’s citation read: “His attitude in the gym, through the mentoring role he plays with younger players to the quality of performance he delivers consistently each week, make Ruan a worthy winner of this coveted award.”
Meanwhile Adam D’Arcy — another of Ulster’s imports last summer, in his case, from Australia — won the Belfast Telegraph Most Improved Ulster Player of the Year.
Totally unknown when he arrived from Sydney for a two-week trial, he promptly became a regular. D’Arcy, who is Irish-qualified, has impressing both in defence and attack. Safe and brave under the high ball, his broken field running ability has been a highlight.
Meanwhile Nevin Spence and Craig Gilroy were named as Vodafone Young Ulster Player of the Year and Phoenix Gas Ulster Academy Player of the Year respectively.
Spence, 21, made the most of the unavailability of big-name Ulster centres by establishing himself as a senior regular.
Gilroy’s meteoric rise — from the Phoenix Ulster Academy at the start of the season to now having scored eight tries in 12 Magners League matches — gave him the edge in a highly competitive category.