Dream Team named
Nick Williams and Luke Marshall doubled up to round off the perfect weekend for Ulster as they scooped the top two awards at the Pro12 awards.
Two days after Ulster clinched top spot at the end of the regular season with a convincing 32-17 home win over Cardiff Blues, two of their stand-out players of the season so far were honoured.
Both men had already also been named in the Pro12 Dream Team for the season and Williams scooped the 'Players' Player of the Year' award for his outstanding back row contribution to Ulster's march into the play-offs.
Marshall picked up the 'Young Player of the Year' title after not only breaking into the Ulster side, but also into the Irish national team.
After four seasons playing in the competition at Munster and Aironi, Williams headed to Belfast this winter and revealed his full array of talents as he scored six tries in 16 appearances in the Pro12. At times unstoppable on the charge, he more than filled the gap left by the departure of Pedrie Wannenburg at the end of last season.
The New Zealand No.8 beat British & Irish Lions flanker Justin Tipuric and Glasgow Warriors' Fijian scrumhalf Niko Matawalu to the title. He follows in the footsteps of Tommy Bowe (Ospreys), Ruan Pienaar (Ulster) and Tim Visser (Edinburgh) in picking up the prestigious award.
Marshall had only started five games for Ulster in the Pro12 before this season, yet he grew into the centre role and not only played 11 times, but also won three caps in the RBS 6 Nations. The 22-year-old struck a great partnership with Darren Cave in the Ulster midfield and earned rave reviews throughout the campaign for his tough defence, good distribution and eye for a gap.
He beat Cardiff Blues outside half Rhys Patchell and Connacht full back Robbie Henshaw to the title and follows in the footsteps of Tim Visser (Edinburgh), Toby Faletau (Newport Gwent Dragons) and Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors) as the Pro12 'Young Player of the Year'.
It was a good night for Ulster, who host the Scarlets in the first of the two play-off matches at Ravenhill on Friday night, as they also scooped a £10,000 cheque to put towards youth development after winning the ' Fair Play Award' for having the fewest yellow and red cards and citings over the 22 games – a mere six yellows.
They took over the mantle from play-off rivals Leinster, who had won it for the two previous seasons, who finished second with six yellows and one citing.
Former Scotland and Lions outside half Gregor Townsend won the 'Coach of the Year' title from Ulster's Mark Anscombe and Benetton Treviso's Franco Smith after steering Glasgow Warriors into the play-offs. His side put together a record number of wins during the campaign and finished in third place overall to secure an away trip to the RDS to face Leinster this weekend.
Leinster are the only team the Warriors failed to beat in the regular season, although they took a losing bonus point away with them from both matches. Third time lucky in the play-offs maybe?
Connacht's Michael Swift received the 'Chairman's Award' in recognition of his outstanding service to both his province and the tournament as a whole. He became the first player to break the 150 game barrier this season and completed his 164th appearance against Glasgow Warriors last Friday.
The 35-year-old London-born lock has played in every one of the 12 seasons of 'Celtic' and has signed for at least one more season with the Galway-based outfit.
The Scarlets took over from Glasgow Warriors as winners of the 'Rhino Collision Kings' title after a panel of experts assessed their efficiency at the breakdown and tackling, while Ian Madigan followed in the footsteps of his Leinster team mate Johnny Sexton and Munster's Ronan O'Gara in scooping the 'Rhino Golden Boot'.
Madigan forced his way into the Dream Team for the first time and ended the regular season with 186 points from his 21 appearances, kicking 60 goals – 24 conversions and 36 penalties. He only missed the target with nine attempts – three conversions and six penalties – and ended with an 87% success rate, including landing his last 21 kicks in a row.
Ospreys skipper Alun Wyn Jones, another player to make the Dream Team, took over from fellow Welshman Nigel Owens as the winner of the 'Straight Talking' title.
Pro12 Dream Team 2012/13: Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors)); George North (Scarlets), Jonathan Davies (Scarlets), Luke Marshall (Ulster), Tim Visser (Edinburgh); Ian Madigan (Leinster), Niko Matawalu (Glasgow Warriors); Ryan Grant (Glasgow Warriors), Leonardo Ghiraldini (Benetton Treviso), Adam Jones (Ospreys), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys), Al Kellock (Glasgow Warriors), Alessandro Zanni (Benetton Treviso), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys), Nick Williams (Ulster)
PRO12 AWARD WINNERS 2012/13
PLAYERS' PLAYER OF THE SEASON - Nick Williams (Ulster)
YOUNG PLAYER OF THE SEASON - Luke Marshall (Ulster)
COACH OF THE SEASON - Gregor Townsend (Glasgow Warriors)
CHAIRMAN'S AWARD - Michael Swift (Connacht)
GOLDEN BOOT - Ian Madigan (Leinster)
COLLISION KINGS - Scarlets
FAIRPLAY AWARD - Ulster
STRAIGHT TALKING AWARD - Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys)