MUNSTER’S days of rugby thunder feel sufficiently ancient and fossilised to be the subject of an archaeologist’s dig.
Ronan O’Gara’s latest compelling, thought-provoking appearance on these pages today is a reminder of how it was across those now remote years of eminence when the crimson empire was one on which the sun declined to set.
An era of lustre and majesty when Thomond Park felt like the epicentre of the rugby universe; when O’Gara, O’Connell, Foley, Stringer and Quinlan starred in nights of feral, unmissable theatre; when Leinster were mere carrion on the soles of Munster’s shoes; when Stand Up and Fight amounted to a way of life rather than a vacuous marketeer’s slogan.
O’Gara’s revealing interview with Cian Tracey offers more than a nostalgic throwback to those lost years of imperium, ferocious Limerick Saturday nights, a Broadway glint cutting through the winter murk.
It is also a jolting reminder that Munster’s Klopp, their Loughnane, their messianic leader-in-waiting, resides in exile on the Bay of Biscay.
And that every day - with respect to Johann van Graan, the South African contracted to coach the province until 2022 – the province delay in making their Hall of Fame out-half an offer he cannot refuse feels like 24 hours squandered.
If Munster are a stalled motor requiring jump leads, then it is hard to imagine anybody on the planet more qualified than O’Gara to offer a huge, transformative charge of renewal.
His bone-deep understanding of the province, the emotional intelligence that is evident each time he speaks, his already glittering coaching CV, the endless pursuit of wisdom that has informed his global apprenticeship, his willingness to challenge himself, all of these things make the 43-year-old a compelling choice.
That is before we consider how his charisma and a back catalogue of the highest achievement as the club’s greatest out-half would feel like a revitalising shot of adrenaline and hope entering the Munster bloodstream.
Since their second Heineken Cup way back in the Jurassic era, the province have been locked in the same old puzzle.
European underachievement, false dawns, coaching confusion, the club falling several rungs below their peers. All the time the chasm to old glories widening.
In their post-2008 wilderness years, Munster have been impotent in the face of a Leinster whirlwind, one that has yielded four Champions Cups, four Pro 12/14s and a Challenge Cup, shifting power from Limerick to Dublin.
If not quite as one-sided as another of Irish sport’s preeminent rivalries, the one where Dublin are unbeaten in 15 games against Mayo, still the evidence has accumulated of Leo Cullen’s squad operating in a different stratosphere.
Munster arrive at the Aviva on Saturday having taken down their great foes in Dublin just once since 2009. Leinster have won six of their last seven meetings at all venues and nine of the last 11.
Leinster’s shadow has shut out the sunlight.
Van Graan is hardly the first coach to thrash about helplessly in the wake of the RDS super club or to thud painfully against a semi-final glass ceiling.
Before lockdown placed the season on ice, there was minimal evidence of third season progress, with the southern giants falling at the group stage in Europe for only the fourth time this Millennium.
It cemented the sense that his team - even as reached back to back semi-finals in Europe in 2018 and 2019 - were struggling to locate the inventive or explosive combination to take down the continent's elite.
Teams against which Munster measure themselves - Saracens, Racing and, their nemesis, Leinster - have comfortably repelled the best Van Graan and his players can muster.
If there is justifiable excitement at the recruitment of a pair of Springbok World Cup winners – centre Damian de Allende and hulking lock RG Snyman – the clamour to hand the keys of the kingdom to O’Gara will grow should Saturday confirm the one-way trend in the Leinster/Munster relationship.
O’Gara has never disguised his ambition to coach his home club, though it is equally the case that the loud voice of his inner-perfectionist was unshakeable in its intent to first hoover up every available mote of information and learning.
It has taken him to some of the game’s most storied strongholds. He was a key figure in Racing 92’s reawakening, while his spell in New Zealand with the long untouchable Crusaders, gave him access to the last word in wining expertise.
Such was his impact that the most successful club side on the planet dangled a lucrative contract extension before him. But keen to further broaden his horizons and to establish himself as the main man, he moved to La Rochelle.
Perhaps O’Gara regards as a cautionary tale the manner in which his friend and fellow rugby cerebral, the late, lamented Anthony Foley, struggled with the huge weight of expectation that accompanies the Munster job.
And it is true that the pressure on a native son – particularly one with such a storied CV – would dwarf that of an outsider.
But ROG, with seven years looking down from the coaching box, is at an entirely different stage of his coaching development than the beloved Foley was when he was promoted to the Thomond Park hotseat in 2014.
O’Gara is ten months older than Cullen, yet the latter is already five years, 146 games and three trophies into his head coach career with his native province.
Three years older than Van Graan, he is in that mid-to-late-40s window when Klopp ascended to the Anfield throne, an age by which Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho had won the Champions League and Jim McGuinness had been and gone as Donegal’s All-Ireland-winning alchemist.
In an Off the Ball interview last year, just before he joined La Rochelle, O’Gara ruled out working under Van Graan.
Ever the straight talker, he spoke of taking a top job abroad and 'if I’m good enough then I can get a job at home on my terms.'
The inference was clear. When he becomes Munster coach – and it is a 'when' not an 'if' – he will, like any single-minded, ambitious visionary/obsessive, demand absolute control. As Klopp did at Liverpool, Jim Gavin at Dublin or Liam Sheedy at Tipp.
O’Gara’s innate decency means he would never canvass for the Munster job while another coach is in position - and it is undeniably true that rugby does not spin the revolving door remotely as pitilessly as the Premier League.
Yet, still, Van Graan is, essentially, beginning his fourth season. He cannot claim he has not been given ample time to deliver.
The sense, in what is ultimately a cut-throat results business, grows that the stars are close to aligning.
And that the return from exile of Munster’s former kicking king - and one of Ireland’s most impressively driven sportsmen - to a job that has long felt like his natural destiny is looming into sharper focus.
It is difficult to see Van Graan endure beyond next summer unless discernible progress is made. Given the investment in the newly arrived South African World Cup winners, that most likely means a trophy and the ending of the Leinster inferiority complex.
As a player, O'Gara was so often Thomond’s talisman, an out-half who faced down his demons to deliver the killshot at the moment of the most suffocating pressure.
The suspicion here is that the Red Army’s finest chance of a return to those days will arrive only when they turn to their old number ten, a commandant with all those days of thunder battle ribbons pinned to his chest.
It seems absurd for Munster to rely on an archaeologist’s trowel to locate their ancient stash of gold when a ready-made Midas sits waiting in France.