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Ulster Rugby: Ruan Pienaar in running for top Euro prize

By Michael Sadlier

Even though Ulster's Heineken Cup journey came to juddering, and controversial, halt earlier this month in that epic Ravenhill quarter-final with Saracens, Ruan Pienaar has still managed to make the longlist of those vying for this year's ERC European Player of the Year.

The 30-year-old, who is currently out injured, is one of five Irish-based players to make the initial list of 15 who are in the running for the last ERC organised accolade ahead of next season's restructured European Rugby Champions Cup.

The other home-based candidates are all Ireland internationals with Munster's Paul O'Connell and Peter O'Mahony being named while Leinster supply Cian Healy and Sean Cronin though, as this is a longlist which is based on the pool stages, the judging panel can add players who make notable contributions during this weekend's semi-finals in both Heineken and Amlin Cups.

A five-man shortlist will then be announced following this weekend with the winner named after next month's cup finals in Cardiff.

Though Pienaar may have an outside chance of making that shortlist his candidacy will have been boosted by his pair of man of the match performances in Ulster's final two pool games.

He scored 17 points in last January's home win over Montpellier before playing a starring role the following week in the dramatic result at Leicester Tigers when he notched up all the visitors' 22-point total.

The full longlist of players is: Steffon Armitage (Toulon), Miles Benjamin (Leicester Tigers), Sean Cronin (Leinster), Jean-Marc Doussain (Toulouse), Matt Giteau (Toulon), Alex Goode (Saracens), Cian Healy (Leinster), Fritz Lee (Clermont), George North (Northampton), Paul O'Connell (Munster), Peter O'Mahony (Munster), Louis Picamoles (Toulouse), Ruan Pienaar (Ulster), Sitiveni Sivivatu (Clermont), Jonny Wilkinson (Toulon and last year's Player of the Year).

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