One of my favourite places is The Castle Inn on South Main St in Cork, though of course it’s more than a year since I’ve been there.
With all the charm of a country pub in the middle of the city, pretentiousness is in short supply, and you can be sure of a good atmosphere and interesting chat. Hopefully, Covid-19 and familial commitments will allow me to spend a night there soon, sipping a pint of stout in front of the open turf fire.
On the wall near the fireplace is what is now a 15-year-old poster, given out by a national newspaper in the wake of the 2006 Heineken Cup semi-final between Munster and Leinster. While Munster won that game 30-6, there was slightly a just-about-manageable 10-point margin with three minutes left.
That was when Ronan O’Gara broke the Leinster line and crossed for the clinching try, jumping the hoardings and celebrating with the Munster faithful, before a Trevor Halstead try put the cherry on top.
The picture in The Castle captures the moment where O’Gara has taken possession. Girvan Dempsey looks dismayed, Brian O’Driscoll is taking out his gumshield, Donncha O’Callaghan supports O’Gara with a look of euphoria on his face and O’Gara has a Cheshire cat grin.
Beating Leinster meant a lot to him when he was with Munster and this Sunday he will pit himself against the eastern province in another European semi-final, as Leo Cullen’s side travel to face the O’Gara-coached La Rochelle.
Obviously, the landscape is far different to a decade and a half ago. Back then, Leinster’s character was in question whereas now they are a continental behemoth. La Rochelle aren’t exactly David, but they’re still some way off Goliath.
And, as much as O’Gara, or ROG as he’s kown, would like to win, it will primarily be for the prize of a place in the final rather than because of the opposition, according to his former Munster and Ireland team-mate Mick O’Driscoll.
“In top-level modern sport – and I’d include GAA in this – the idea of banging the head off the wall is gone,” he says.
“That’s all old-school stuff and it’s out the window. It doesn’t exist in the modern game, which is good because it makes it a game of wits, understanding the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses.
“Unfortunately for ROG and La Rochelle, Leinster don’t have too many weaknesses. Like any side, they can be beaten on the day but it’s going to be a massive challenge for La Rochelle.
“They haven’t been at this end of a tournament in Europe and, in my view, it takes a couple of years to get up to that level.
“Leinster will certainly have the edge on them in that regard and they’re favourites and rightly so.
“Obviously, La Rochelle are a very good team, with some phenomenal players and they’re playing well as a team, which is testament to ROG and [director of rugby] Jono Gibbes, who will also have experience of Leinster.
“If La Rochelle play the type of rugby they’ve been playing all along, then I do give them a chance.”
O’Driscoll certainly isn’t surprised at how well O’Gara has done as a coach, and expects him to continue impressing as he steps up to the director of rugby role for next season, with Gibbes joining Clermont Auvergne.
“I think it was something that was always apparent,” O’Driscoll says, “given how he ran games and how he operated himself.
“It was always the way that he was going to go but, in fairness to him, he has done an incredible job, going to Paris with Racing 92 and then to go to New Zealand and broaden his horizons, get a feel for how things worked at the other side of the world.
“He had served his apprenticeship with Racing 92, but to become an assistant coach with the Crusaders was a big step up and then coming back as a head coach with La Rochelle was more progress. Now, he’s moving up to director of rugby there, stepping up another level, so it’s the culmination of eight or so years.
“The buck will stop with him, but it’s something he’ll really take in his stride. He’s done phenomenally well and it’s absolutely brilliant to see it.
“It’s something that he has always wanted to do and he has had success wherever he has been.”