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Ulster scrum-half Pienaar nominated for premier award

By Niall Crozier

RUAN Pienaar, Ulster's talismanic scrum-half, has been nominated for this season's ERC European Player of the Year award.

The 29-year-old South African, who has played in 74 Tests for the Springboks, soared up the ratings at the weekend following his magnificent contribution to Ulster's 22-19 victory over Leicester Tigers on Saturday night at Welford Road.

Not only did he score Mark Anscombe's side's only try – he converted it, too, as well as kicking five out of five penalties to finish a memorable night on which he was responsible for all of their points.

It was the first time since October 2006 that the English champions had lost a Heineken Cup game at their home ground and nobody did more to end the Tigers' proud record than the remarkable South African.

In the circumstances, his inclusion in the initial long-list of 15 nominees was something of a formality, rekindling memories of 2011-12 when both Pienaar and Ulster colleague Stephen Ferris made it all the way through to the final five only to be pipped at the post by Leinster's Rob Kearney, a member of the team which trounced the northern province in the Heineken Cup final at Twickenham.

The following season Pienaar and Rory Best were in the long-list published at the end of the pool stage matches, but Ulster's quarter-final elimination at the hands of Saracens torpedoed any chance either might have had.

Ultimately the coveted prize went to Toulon skipper Jonny Wilkinson, who led his team of veterans to a 16-15 victory over French rivals Clermont in the Aviva Stadium final.

The moral of the story is that the ERC European Player of the Year award invariably goes to a member of the side which lifts the trophy – witness Sean O'Brien, Kearney and Wilkinson in 2011, 2012 and 2013 respectively.

Interestingly, while Ulster – the only team in this season's tournament with a 100 per cent record and top seeds as a result – have just the one nominee, fourth seeds Munster have two in Paul O'Connell and Peter O'Mahony, as do Leinster, namely Cian Healy and Sean Cronin.

Saracens – Ulster's quarter-final opponents – have a contender at this stage, too. He is full-back Alex Goode.

Keith Earls, incidentally, has become the latest Ireland international to agree fresh terms with the Irish Rugby Football Union after signing a new two-year contract with Munster.

Earls has won 39 caps since making his debut in 2008, scoring 12 tries, and has made 91 appearances for Munster.

The 26-year-old, who can play on the wing or at outside centre, rejected offers from English and French clubs to continue his career in Ireland.

"I'm delighted to sign a new IRFU contract and to continue representing my province," Earls said.

"This Munster team has shown it has what it takes to compete with the best in Europe and I look forward to playing my role in bringing further success to both Munster and Ireland."

The IRFU has proved successful in convincing its international stars to continue playing in Ireland, with O'Connell and O'Brien recently agreeing new deals.

The only remaining doubt hangs over Top 14 target Jamie Heaslip, whose contract expires at the end of the season.

In contrast, the Welsh Rugby Union has witnessed an exodus of players to France, with the possibility of others such as Wales captain Sam Warburton and prop Adam Jones following in their footsteps.

"Keith is a proven finisher and has shown guile and determination throughout his rugby career for both Munster and Ireland," IRFU chief executive Philip Browne said.

* WALES lock Ian Evans will discover if he will miss the RBS 6 Nations when he faces a European Rugby Cup disciplinary hearing tomorrow.

The Ospreys second-row was sent off by referee Romain Poite for allegedly stamping on Leinster counterpart Mike McCarthy during last Friday's Heineken Cup meeting between the sides.

The incident left Ireland international McCarthy with blood streaming across his face.

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