In rugby the shiny and the new can often hog the limelight and a dank Sunday in Coventry was a prime example. By the end of their 35-14 win over Wasps, a Covid-depleted Munster had introduced a dozen debutants, several of them gleaming ruby-bright on their first big outings for their province. Wherever their careers now take them, they will always be able to amuse their grandkids with the unlikely tale of where it all started.
Beneath the “miracle” headlines, though, it was not all about fresh-faced students and precocious youth. Before the game had even started there was a telling snapshot as Peter O’Mahony led his eclectic red army on a half-lap of the field, deliberately jogging past Munster’s fans en route back to the away dressing room. As he passed us the skipper’s jaw was already visibly clenched in defiance. Technically it was a home game for Wasps but it did not feel like it.
Not long into the contest there was another highly significant moment. Thomas Young, the perennially excellent Wasps flanker, burst clear and looked to have left the cover, O’Mahony included, in his wake. The Irish flanker has many physical attributes but even he would admit to being slightly more buffalo than antelope. Unless, that is, the pride and honour of his beloved province are at stake. Finding an extra gear from somewhere he improbably dragged down Young in the left corner and set the tone for much of what followed.
Technically O’Mahony is “only” in his 33rd year but it was still a victory for old-ish battle-scarred warhorses everywhere. There are not millions of back-rowers born in the 1980s still cutting it in the modern professional game but the indefatigable Munster spirit, previously characterised by Anthony Foley, Mick Galwey, Peter Clohessy and Moss Keane, clearly lives on.
It should be mentioned at this point that O’Mahony, who captained the Lions in the first Test against the All Blacks in 2017, is no saint. A couple of subsequent clear-outs were not pretty and he was also forced to apologise on Monday to those offended by a slightly overenthusiastic pre-final video message to UL Bohemians Under-15s, in which he advised them to stick it up Garryowen.
In some ways, though, all this underlines precisely how and why he was able to make that remarkable tackle on Young. Rugby obsession still oozes from him, for better or worse. Up in the commentary box was another former Munster legend, Donncha O’Callaghan, who played until he was 39. The former Test lock delivered a splendid line about how it really feels to be a kid forward stepping up to the men’s game. Getting up from your first scrum and setting wearily off towards the next breakdown, he recalled, “feels like you’re wearing wellies”. Imagine strapping on a pair of those gumboots day-in, day-out for over a decade as increasingly younger teammates make increasingly disrespectful noises about your mobility. Mind over matter, indeed.
And right there is a good reason, every now and then, to venerate experience and gnarled rugby wisdom as much as we do oval-shaped beauty and youth. This is not to condone O’Mahony’s occasional excesses, most obviously his three-game ban for an ugly challenge on Wales’ Tomas Francis in the last Six Nations, but young players will also tell you the life lessons picked up from players like him are hugely formative.
On the same field as O’Mahony on Sunday, for example, was the 38-year-old Jimmy Gopperth, an enduring example for any youngster. Still going strong for Leinster and Ireland at 36, Johnny Sexton remains as competitive as anyone still togging out. Just this week arrived word from Italy that Sergio Parisse, now 38, wants to have one last hurrah in the 2022 Six Nations. There seems to be no vaccine available to combat their inexhaustible passion.
They all have a long way to go to catch Mark Bright, the veteran No 8 who captained Richmond against Ealing Trailfinders in the English championship at the weekend at the age of 43. And even Bright must keep batting on a while yet to catch up with Graham Dawe (Plymouth Albion, 51), Maama Molitika (Ampthill, 45) and Dave Hilton (Bristol, 44) in the longevity stakes in the English game’s second tier.
In every case, though, it is their unflinching commitment that counts for more than such tiny details as age or career length. Munster also had several other thirtysomethings on the pitch against Wasps in the form of Keith Earls, Conor Murray, Andrew Conway and Damian de Allende, a World Cup winner with South Africa, and all that attitude seemed to percolate straight into the minds and bodies of their younger teammates.
As a consequence, anything is now once again possible in the minds of Munster’s brave and the faithful. Covid permitting, Castres’s visit to Thomond Park this Saturday is once more a prospect to be excited about, rather than fear. For all the individual brilliance – and how stunningly good they were – of Toulouse’s Antoine Dupont, the deserved world player of the year, and Racing 92’s Finn Russell, the rugby folk of Limerick and Cork tend to favour the intense collective joy that only team sport can generate.To repeat, O’Mahony is no angel but his unquenchable warrior spirit remains a fundamental part of rugby’s DNA. The game would be significantly poorer without his like.