It’s nine years since Ronan O’Gara cut the umbilical cord with Munster. A man linked indelibly with his native province and city of Cork has since forged a new life on the other side of the white line, in France, then New Zealand and in France again.
But Munster has never left him.
How could it? He played 240 times for them, broke all manner of scoring records and featured in 16 consecutive Heineken Cup campaigns. It was a time that shaped him as a person and as a player and laid the groundwork for his career as a coach.
It’s an influence that we know is always there, a key cog in his internal combustion engine, but there have been plenty of times when he has given voice to that long chapter in his life and he did so again yesterday.
“What is important for our team is that we play,” he explained. “I was that guy that froze in a first final and that happens. People will freeze tomorrow but you’re just hoping that not too many of the boys will. And that’s what experience is: putting yourself in the same scenario and doing it better the next time.
“So, I think from my finals as a player, you look at them and the Northampton one was a non-event, the Leicester was good because firstly you played, but then I just remember the Biarritz game (in 2006) and there was a feeling from Paul (O’Connell) to the rest of the players: ‘We’ve got to play boys’.”
If you could boil O’Gara’s wishlist down to one here in Marseille this would be his. Just play.
The build-up to this Heineken Champions Cup final – at least back home in Ireland – has produced a simplistic painting of Leinster’s swashbuckling cavaliers and La Rochelle’s brute-force Roundheads. The view is that if the game opens up then it’s Leinster’s to lose. A tight, physical test and it’s game on.
It’s a theory given ample airing after the manner in which Leinster put Leicester Tigers and Toulouse to the sword, and after the semi-final in Lens between La Rochelle and Racing 92 that could serve as a prime example of the worst the French league has to offer in terms of aesthetic value.
“What excites me is that my team can play,” said O’Gara. “We need to get the ball into (Jérémy) Sinzelle’s hands, we need to get outside and then we’ve got juicy forwards. So we can play both games, we just need to play.
“Yeah, Leinster have got great threats but it excites me coaching this team, it really does. I don’t know where it will end. It may not be a happy ending tomorrow but I’m hopeful it will. I wouldn’t be surprised if it did and I’m just trying to instill that in the boys.”
He was in full flow now. They may be beaten today, for what would be a third straight time in a major final after last season’s pair of disappointments, but he would like to think that they won’t lose, regardless of the outcome, if that makes sense.
To do that they have to play, as O’Connell said.
The return of Will Skelton to the second row helps in that but then they are without Victor Vito and Tawera Kerr-Barlow due to injuries and they face what O'Gara termed a “classy” Leinster side that is led yet again by his old rival and friend Johnny Sexton.
The Leinster captain couldn’t quite figure out yesterday why everyone continues to be fascinated by their relationship and whether or not they met for coffee this week but the mutual respect was all too obvious.
O’Gara spoke about how his mindset changed after his own playing career ended, and how he became to appreciate the importance of the journey and of the people you take it with, some of whom, he added, are not around anymore.
It all came back to that sense of wanting his players to enjoy this, to grab it with both hands, but stopping Sexton remains key to that too.
“I’ve experienced every emotion with Johnny and I respect him a lot. I enjoy his mindset, and I enjoy how he goes about his business,” he said, although that respect only extends so far.
“We need to get stuck into him. That’s the biggest compliment I can give him because I think they play differently when he’s on the pitch.”
You can take the man out of Munster…