Ulster and Ireland lock Gary Longwell has become the 'lucky' 13th player to earn an ERC Elite Award for playing 50 games in the Heineken Cup.
The 33-year-old, who played in all nine matches when Ulster lifted the European title in 1999, completed his half-century in his side's home victory over Gloucester in Round 5 of the 10th aniversary tournament last Friday.
Longwell becomes the 10th forward to earn a special ERC cap for playing 50 Heineken Cup games and is the seventh Irish player to reach the landmark. Ulster are one of only four sides to have played in every season of the Heineken Cup since it was set-up by ERC in the 1995/96 season and have already received an Elite Award for playing in 50 matches.
Ulster coach Mark McCall, who played alongside Longwell in the inaugural season when Ulster lost to Cardiff and Begles-Bordeaux, presented the ERC Elite Award cap to his stalwart second row at Ravenhill today (Friday, 14 January).
"It's great for Gary and for Ulster to be ranked among the ERC Elite Award winners and it is a great achievement for any player to complete 50 appearances in the Heineken Cup," said McCall.
"Gary was convinced he had reached the landmark much earlier in the season, and that he had gone on to play 52 matches, so we asked ERC to comb through the record books with officials at the Ulster Branch. The first thing they discovered was that Gary hadn't actually made 52 appearances.
"But what did come to light was that there was a discrepancy in the record books from Ulster's second game in the Heineken Cup, when they faced Begles-Bordeaux at Ravenhill on Sunday, 17
December, 1995. Jeremy Davidson was selected for the game alongside David Tweed in the second row, but Gary was actually drafted in at the very last minute when Jeremy pulled out just before kick-off with an injury.
"It would appear that ERC weren't notified of the change and that Gary was one appearance light as a result. When ERC contacted Jeremy he was delighted to confirm he had missed the match and that Gary had played.
"And when the Ulster Branch contacted Gary to set the record straight he said he had found the jersey he had worn in the match to provide conclusive proof."
The Toulouse No 8 Christian Labit, who made his 50th appearance for the French side this season, will receive his cap from the ERC chief executive Derek McGrath before his team's home clash with Llanelli Scarlets tonight.
"The ERC Elite Awards are there to honour the stalwarts of Heineken Cup rugby. Both Gary and Christian certainly fall into that category and have joined a pretty unique and talented group of players who have made 50 appearances," said McGrath.
"ERC was delighted to have confirmed with the Ulster Branch that Gary had in fact reached his personal milestone last weekend rather than this, when Ulster travel to Cardiff on Sunday. He is a very worthy addition to the tournament's roll of honour."
As part of the build-up to next month's Cardiff 2014 Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup finals weekend, ERC has joined forces with the WRU, Cardiff Blues and adidas to develop an annual grassroots community rugby programme targeting young players.
The Ulster Rugby full back, Jared Payne (No 15), has been suspended for two (2) weeks following an independent Disciplinary Hearing in Dublin arising from the Heineken Cup quarter-final match against Saracens at Ravenhill Stadium on Saturday, 5 April.