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22nd Dec 2014

Penney’s farewell, Axel’s arrival and CJ’s class – it’s SportsJOE’s Munster Awards for 2014

We look back on the year that was in Munster rugby

Neil Treacy

It’s been a year of many highs and lows for Munster in 2014.

Big European wins against Toulouse and Saracens, as well as September’s defeat of rivals Leinster at Thomond Park, proved to be major highlights, but Pro12 and Heineken Cup semi-final defeats soured Rob Penney’s goodbye to the province.

A first ever defeat by a French side at Thomond Park has left their European campaign for this season hanging in the balance ahead of the meetings with Saracens and Sale in January.

Anthony Foley has stepped up to the mark of head coach, and the past 12 months have seen a real emphasis on the young players leading the squad, with Foley handing the captaincy to both Felix Jones and Conor Murray on occasion.

So with 2014 drawing to a close, we look back at the last 12 months of Munster rugby, and hand out some gongs along the way.

Player of the Year

CJ Stander

Craig Gilroy and CJ Stander 28/11/2014

Rob Penney never seemed to be a fan of CJ, citing his limitations in defence, but the South African project-player has exploded into life since signing a two-year contract extension and has been Munster’s most destructive player since Foley took charge in the summer.

He finished last season strongly, scoring a try and picking up man-of-the-match against Toulouse in the Heineken Cup quarter-final after replacing the injured Peter O’Mahony, and has already chipped in with four tries this campaign, consigning new recruit Robin Copeland to a reserve role in the process.

Our individual highlight of Stander’s 2014 has to be when he raged war on the Sale defence during the Champions Cup win in October.

Newcomer of the Year

Duncan Casey

Duncan Casey 14/12/2014

Long-term injuries to Mike Sherry and Damien Varley ultimately thrust Casey into the starting hooker jersey last spring, but the 24-year-old has slotted seamlessly into the front row, to the point that further surgery to Sherry’s shoulder injury hasn’t struck a fraction of the fear into Munster hearts as it did last season.

The Corkman’s throwing at the lineout has been a great weapon and he’s chipped in with his first two tries for the senior team in the last six weeks.

Despite only making his debut for the province this time last year, a promising second half of the season could give him an outside chance of a place in the World Cup squad, although with Rory Best, Sean Cronin and Richardt Strauss currently the three Joe Schmidt favours, he may need to wait for an injury to force his way into the Irish supremo’s plans.

Most Improved Player

Felix Jones

MunsterÕs Felix Jones is tackled by SaracensÕs Marcelo Bosch 24/10/2014

Injuries have often hampered Jones just as he was on the verge of a breakthrough, but 2014 has been a big year for the 27-year-old, on both provincial and national level.

Jones has looked more dangerous and confident in attack during the last 12 months, and he seems to be viewed as one of the squad’s emerging leaders, captaining the side on a number of occasions this season in the absence of Peter O’Mahony.

His form with Munster has also been acknowledged by Irish coach Joe Schmidt, who has capped him on the summer tour of Argentina, as well as giving him game time in all three of Ireland’s Autumn Internationals, and he chipped in with two tries during the rout of Georgia, the second of which was an absolute peach.

Performance of the Year

Munster 47-23 Toulouse

Dave Kilcoyne celebrates his try with Paul O'Connell 5/4/2014

Toulouse may not be the almighty force they once were, but any time you run in six tries during a thrashing of a major French club is a cause for celebration.

Munster blew Toulouse apart in a complete 80-minute performance. Keith Earls crossed for a try inside five minutes and they never looked back.

Toulouse just about stayed in touch until half-time, but when Dave Kilcoyne’s try put daylight between them at the start of the second half, Munster showed a ruthless streak not seen for a long time, running riot to score four more tries and book a last-four trip to Marseille.

Try of the Year

Duncan Williams v Ulster (10/5/2014)

Munster were beaten 19-17 in awful conditions at Thomond Park in their final regular season Pro12 game of last season, but there was one highlight in an otherwise forgettable evening, when Duncan Williams finished off a magic team move to score the opening try of the game.

The move starts just outside their own 22 and takes in five perfect offloads, ultimately resulting in Williams following up on his own earlier pass to glide over the line unchallenged.

An absolute gem of a team try.

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