The knock on the door tended to come at a late hour, just as the family were preparing for bed. Paul O'Connell knew who it was.
It was midwinter, early January, bleak outside but still he would reach for his tracksuit, pull on a pair of trainers and slip out into the night.
It was a slow walk to the corner shop, skirting the park. The lads who hung out there were unaware who the hooded figures strolling by were, not that the local boys would have dared to think of taking on such looming shapes, one a former captain of province, country and the Lions, the other Alan Quinlan, the recently retired hard man of the Munster back-row.
The ritual became a regular occurrence, a time for reflection, an opportunity to throw the mind forward to occasions such as last Sunday at the Stoop, when the force was back with Munster as Harlequins were vanquished and when a rejuvenated O'Connell in only his third game since recovering from a serious back injury showed why the Lions will surely once again come calling for the tour to Australia.
O'Connell was not the only person in the land to be lying flat on his back on New Year's Day, although his state of immobility was because of an operation the night before. Whatever resolution he made, it has come to pass, with a return to playing ahead of schedule giving him a fighter's chance of making the Lions' cut. O'Connell never felt his career was threatened by the bulging disc problem in his lower back that had plagued him since last autumn. But the lock did worry that he would ever get back in time to make a decent fist of this season. Now, three matches in, two man-of-the-match awards, an improbable Heineken Cup quarter-final win away from home against the Premiership champions and a semi-final in prospect against Clermont - things could not be better.
"Quinny [Alan Quinlan] is a neighbour, a bit of a nocturnal creature, but it was great to have the company as you just have to get up and moving four or five days after an op like that," O'Connell said. "Whatever you do, you have to keep the faith. And, absolutely, it is days like last weekend that make it worthwhile. As a player, it's the setbacks and heartaches that make the good days so special. The easy bit is being out there playing, working hard, taking the knocks, your mates alongside. The tough bit is getting through injury, the slow process of rehab. It's not as if rehab gets you stronger. It just gets you back to the place you where six months earlier. I would be in the gym, hardly working up a sweat, just to get the core right again. The longer you are out, the harder it is to get back up there, especially the position I play in. My game depends on being really fit. That's my strong suit. But it is all good now."
O'Connell is 33. He refuses to see his selection for the Lions as anything close to a foregone conclusion despite two full tours of duty, the starting lock in every Test in 2005 in New Zealand and again four years later in South Africa. Others, such as Wales's Ian Evans or England's young buck, Joe Launchbury, thrived in the Six Nations. O'Connell is quick to point out that second-row is a position of strength for the Lions. All very well. None, though, have O'Connell's pedigree. None have his presence. As Munster showed last week, O'Connell galvanises those around him. He is more than just a player.
That said, there has been only cursory contact with Lions head coach, Warren Gatland. "I actually bumped into him in the lift at the hotel before the Quins match and that's as much as it has been," O'Connell said. "That's the way I would expect it to be."
Gatland was suitably impressed by O'Connell's performance against Harlequins. How could he not have been? O'Connell will be watched again in Saturday's RaboDirect match against Leinster at Thomond Park, never a gentle affair, when another Lions captain and hopeful, Brian O'Driscoll will be in opposition to boot. Munster have little to play for in that competition but every minute on the pitch for O'Connell is a boon. He sees himself as still working his way back to full match output. The flip side is that he will not be worn out by the demands of a long season by the time the Lions tour is under way. Others will be flagging, he will be at full gallop. "That's the line I'm peddling," he says with a laugh.
O'Connell is a key figure for Gatland, a rallying point, a leader, self-evident captaincy material. The Lions need that experience, the wisdom of men who have suffered for the cause.
"It is a long shot for me to be involved but, of course, it is one I would love to take on," O'Connell said. "There are great memories there for sure, wonderful moments from 2009 in particular, but no victory in the series. Those are the guys who are remembered, and rightly so. The winning Lions, England's World Cup guys, they're a bit separate to the rest of us. To send a Lions team to the southern hemisphere and win is difficult, and will get more and more so. But that's the beauty of the challenge. It's special if you win, very special."
As it has often been for O'Connell in a Munster shirt. Even he, though, the man who led to them to Heineken Cup triumph in 2008, two years after their first title, had misgivings going in to last Sunday's quarter-final. "Munster just hadn't been firing and we'd lost to a record score at Glasgow the previous week. The boys had been copping it, compared unfavourably to previous Munster sides. That chips away at you, chips at your self-belief. I knew we had a big performance in us but, equally, in the back of my mind I was aware too that it could have been a day to forget."
Instead it was another of those glory days. The stuff of dreams and late-night walks to the corner shop.
He will be hoping to take another step towards Lions selection with a big showing against provincial foes Leinster at Thomond Park.