Horan fighting fit and back in business
Of all the things that went through Marcus Horan's mind when he lay in Limerick's Regional Hospital in the early hours of October 18 last, he would never in a lifetime have countenanced that relief would be the chief emotion coursing through his frazzled senses.
Less than 12 hours earlier on his beloved Thomond Park turf, his legs had buckled once more beneath the weight of a four-year-long intermittent spell of dizziness and weakness.
Now, prone on a hospital bed, Horan was forced to confront the possibility that not only his career, but his very quality of life was now at stake as a result of the pursuit of the game he loved. And yet still relief jostled with fear and apprehension as he contemplated this red-letter day in his 32-year existence.
At least he knew now the toll taken on his body. And soon he would know the steps that must be taken to restore his physical well-being, primarily for the sake of his wife and the imminent arrival of a second child. His career was at that stage, understandably, a secondary consideration.
Firstly, let him take us back to that fateful day in Thomond Park against Treviso when he succumbed in the opening 10 minutes, just as he had done in Rome during the previous season's Grand Slam triumph.
"The adrenalin was the catalyst that would set it off," he recalls at Munster's superb Ballykisteen Hotel base beside Limerick Junction. "There were days before I even took the pitch that I would feel it in the dressing-room.
"That particular day in Thomond was one of them. It was uncontrollable. Nothing was registering with me. I could see things happening in front of me but couldn't react quickly enough.
"This season they were becoming a bit more regular than before. It was probably coming to a head anyway."
The initial prognosis, that denoting that his was a minor heart defect, was stark but paradoxically calming.
"The first night in the Regional when I was actually told, it was a weight off my shoulders because I finally knew it wasn't that I was unfit, or that there was something else there.
"There was a physical thing wrong with me. But then the reality was hitting home afterwards and I was nearly p****d off that they found something because of what it meant. But it's all good now. I'm glad and I'm really positive."
The quick thinking of the club doctor Tadhg O'Sullivan, who spotted the irregular heartbeat in the dressing-room, allowed medical nature to plot its course; premature retirement was the obvious destination, it seemed. It was still going like the clappers even a few hours after the game. I went to a specialist in Dublin and got bad news and was told more or less that I had to finish up. Then I met a good guy in Cork and I suppose the rest is history."
Surgeon Gary Fahy performed a minor heart procedure similar to that previously rendered successfully upon former team-mate Frankie Sheahan. Like Sheahan, Horan was primarily concerned about the long-term future.
"Regardless of getting back playing rugby, I wanted to give myself a quality of life. Even if I had to give up rugby and I had to live with it, I would have found that hard. So just to have it done and get it sorted is a great feeling.
"But your priority is your health and your family, to be able to spend the rest of your life with them. I didn't want to put that in jeopardy. Rugby is very important to me, but there's a limit you'll bring it to."
But now that he is playing again, from baby steps within the bosom of the Shannon family, to Ireland 'A' and Magners League, Horan is plotting a path back to the top once more. And the beard is back.
"I just forgot to shave, to be honest, and it's cold out as well," he smiles. "I feel good to be honest. It takes a while to get back to a certain level, but each game that I've played I feel I'm getting stronger and stronger. You're coming to this time of the season when games are getting more and more serious and more and more competitive. So that will benefit me hugely and hopefully with the break that I did have I will be that bit stronger come the latter stages of the season."
His recovery came too late to affect Six Nations selection but he wants to tour this summer.
"There's no point in playing on if I don't do things like that. I don't see why not. I haven't missed a huge amount of rugby; there's a lot more guys that have been involved in Irish teams this year that have played less rugby than me this year.
"There's a perception out there that I've missed a huge amount of rugby. I haven't. And as I say, we're in the business end of the season now and Munster are in contention for things, so I'm gonna really give it a go."