Double act still at core of Munster fortunes
IT is not an exaggeration to suggest that Munster's fortunes against Clermont Auvergne in tomorrow's Heineken Cup semi-final are heavily dependent on two of rugby's most influential players, Paul O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara.
It is testament to their longevity that they remain the standard bearers for Munster in their continuing quest for European acclaim and success.
What is truly remarkable is that, after so many years of achievement, they remain such an integral and irreplaceable part of a Munster team that is evolving around them.
Players have come and gone. Principal characters, who were central to the story of Munster's fabled history, such as David Wallace, Mick Galwey, John Kelly, Alan Quinlan and John Hayes, have retired.
When Munster take to the pitch tomorrow, O'Gara will be the sole link to the team that contested their first Heineken Cup final back in 2000, when they lost by a point to Northampton. O'Connell was on board for the 2002 final loss to Leicester Tigers.
They will also be the sole links to the first win in 2006. Denis Hurley was in the starting team for the 2008 win over Toulouse, while Donnacha Ryan and Keith Earls were on the bench.
Comparisons are usually too subjective to be meaningful in a sporting sense – it's much more instructive and rewarding to celebrate genius in its own right – but it is a good time to wonder how this season's vintage measures up to the players who dominated Europe for nearly a decade.
The pre-eminent roles of O'Gara and O'Connell in the affairs of Munster brook no comparison. They, almost above all others, are two players who have been paramount in the Munster success story.
They are, of course, not the players they once were. Who among us can claim to be as fit, strong, quick and energetic as we were almost a decade ago? It is testament to the competitive spirit that courses through their bodies that they remain not just relevant, but enormously influential.
Through Munster's near decade of ascendancy they were the chief architects. O'Gara was the master-puppeteer pulling the strings from his out-half berth, with O'Connell pointing the way with heroic performances in the engine room of the second-row.
And so it has been since this pair first came to the fore. They are the barometer for Munster. When they played well Munster invariably won matches and, more pertinently, European and league titles. Their true worth will be fully known and acknowledged only after their departure, when Munster seek to replace them.
Their careers have not been devoid of criticism, of course. O'Gara's defence, for example, has always been a stick used to beat him with, the same way his age (36) is now being used against him.
He has never shied away from the reality that his defence is not the strongest suit in his armoury, but he has never side-stepped his responsibilities in this area and has paid the price of concussion on more than one occasion.
That he retains the ability to influence games in Europe, as he did in both Saracens pool fixtures and against Harlequins, emphasises his continuing importance to Munster. Why else does he continue to be selected to start the marquee games by the coaching staff?
O'Connell's career has been far more disrupted than O'Gara's because of the seriousness of the injuries he has suffered.
Indeed, during his latest lay-off for back surgery, it was being openly discussed whether or not he should walk away from a game that is becoming more and more gladiatorial. A quick study of the injuries O'Connell has sustained over the years and you wonder how he gets out of bed in the morning at all.
Over his career he has suffered a broken thumb (2005), a fractured thumb ('07), a groin injury ('08 and '10), a medial ligament tear ('12) and two back operations ('02 and '12) and all have resulted in him missing large parts of Munster's seasons.
He played no part in their 2008 pool campaign, for example, and also missed the 2010 semi-final loss to Biarritz.
Over the years his game too has had its share of criticism. When he was at his marauding best, those looking for weaknesses highlighted his tendency to be a one-out carrier where he would invariably go to ground in contact.
He has adapted and, indeed, improved this facet of his game this season. Since his return to action, he has shown he has lost none of his line-out abilities and he is also making good yardage gains with ball in hand.
Like O'Gara, though, O'Connell's value to the team has always been far more than his individual skills. Both represent and contribute something far more valuable. They instil belief in their team-mates, exude an aura that imbues their colleagues with confidence and fill opponents' heads with doubt.
Munster's hopes lie squarely on their shoulders. They have excellent back-up. The likes of James Coughlan, Peter O'Mahony, Conor Murray, Keith Earls and Simon Zebo are game-changers. However, it is no slight on them, or any of their team-mates, to heighten the importance of O'Connell and O'Gara.
When they perform together they have the combined ability to achieve truly remarkable feats and it is noteworthy that the game against Harlequins was just the fourth time Munster have had the luxury of including both players in their team this season.
O'Gara was outstanding in the back-to-back games against Saracens during the pool stage when O'Connell was injured and O'Connell led the way in the bonus-point whitewash win over Edinburgh when O'Gara was absent.
When they're together anything can happen and, as we witnessed against Harlequins, no obstacle is insurmountable in their eyes.
This belief will be tested like never before tomorrow. The challenge posed by Clermont Auvergne in France ranks up there with anything in Munster's storied history. Victory here would be their greatest achievement. Munster have never faced a foe as intimidating as Clermont's amalgam of international stars. That bottomless well of Munster spirit, defiance and ambition will need to be plundered as never before.
At 36 (O'Gara) and 33 (O'Connell) years of age, there is surely a finite number of times they can summon these epic performances from their bodies.
Could there be one more, though, in them tomorrow?