For years, Munster were the darlings of European rugby, capturing the essence of the Heineken Cup with their performances, even in defeat, during the 2000s.
The journey to ultimate glory for the Munstermen began with defeat in the 2000 final against Northampton - a feat they repeated by going agonisingly close once again in 2002 against Leicester at the Millennium Stadium.
It would be at that same venue that they would finally climb European rugby's highest height in 2006, achieving an emotional first Heineken Cup win against Biarritz in Cardiff. Two years later, again in Cardiff, they would repeat that success against Toulouse.
The Munster that will line out against Toulouse in Sunday's opening game of the 2022-23 Heineken Cup, however, is a very different province to the one that walked away triumphant in May 2008.
15 years later, and no European silverware has been added to Munster's tally. Despite numerous semi-final appearances, Munster have not even been to a final since that 2008 triumph over Toulouse. The 2011 Magners League remains their last trophy win.
The baton was firmly passed to Leinster in the aftermath of the crushing 2009 semi-final at Croke Park, and Munster have been chasing the tails of their neighbours in blue ever since.
But, for those who lived through it, there was something quite simply irreplicable about those Munster glory days. The two Heineken Cup wins brought with them such remarkable emotion and connection with the team that swathes of people lined the streets of Limerick on the day of that 2006 final, just to be together as a community to witness history.
'In 2006, the stars aligned'
A huge part of that connection was made through the Heineken Cup's live broadcasting on RTÉ throughout the early 2000s, and the voice of that era of rugby on television was the national broadcaster's Ryle Nugent (who was also head of sport at RTÉ during this seminal phase for Irish rugby).
Now preparing for another season of Champions Cup commentary with BT Sport, Nugent spoke to Balls earlier this week about his memories of those glory days for Munster. Present in Cardiff for both of those European triumphs, he says that the success of Munster was a turning point for rugby as a sport in Ireland, and that the emotional connection with the team will be hard to ever reproduce:
It was a very special time. It’s only history and time passing that makes you realise just how special it was. In many ways, it was the birth of rugby to a greater audience than what was considered to be a traditional rugby audience.
At the time, it went into the public consciousness - for sports lovers, not just for rugby lovers. I think that was probably the tipping point.
I think every sport that is successful in terms of its engagement with the audience has that moment. I think that moment in the early noughties to mid-noughties is probably when rugby went beyond what was considered its traditional audience.
It definitely is connected back into the number of times that they had had their hearts broken in the years previously. There’s just no way you can ignore that when you’re talking about what happened in 2006 and then, like that, all the stars aligned.
The Grand Slam of 2009, the iconic Leinster comeback of 2011, either of Munster's wins in the Heineken Cup - you name a famed Irish rugby moment from the early part of this century, and the odds are that Ryle Nugent was there.
It's clear from speaking with Nugent that there was a special connection, even for him, with that Munster squad of the 2000s, and he said that they came to define that era of rugby for him personally:
My own personal journey through it was with that Munster squad and team that fell over so many times. And then when they eventually stood up at the final of 2006, it was just something remarkable.
I’ve been asked many times over the years what your favourite games are, what games stick in your memory? The game that always is in my top three, and I can’t see it ever not being in my top three, is that Munster final in 2006 against Biarritz.
It was phenomenal and it afforded me an opportunity to do something that I never really thought I’d get the opportunity to do, which was commentating on an Irish team winning a European final.
Now, it’s happened numerous times since but, at the time, it felt rather unique. It was, and I’ll treasure it always.
Rugby simply dominated Munster in the 2000s - specifically, it dominated Limerick.
With the immortal Thomond Park at the centre of it all, the Treaty County became the hub of all things Munster Rugby, in its most glorious hour.
As Nugent points out, perhaps part of the reason things feel different now is that Munster are no longer the big dogs in their biggest stomping ground:
Munster were the only show in town in that part of the world, which patently isn’t true anymore. With the success of Limerick hurling - I know people go back and say, ‘well, there was Clare hurling’ - of course there was. But Limerick was the base for that rugby squad, for Munster it was always the spiritual home of it.
So the stadium, the travelling fans - that’s just the little bit that went with it. The scenes in O’Connell St in Limerick that were then broadcast into the stadium and you could see that emotional connection with the team - not alone with the fans that were there, but with the fans that were home. It all lined up and it was a very, very special day.
The rugby landscape has changed dramatically in the past few years, in a way that is hard to put your finger on. The "red wave" which so captivated the country in the 2000s feels almost like a distant memory now, and it's hard to imagine something like that happening again in 2022.
Then again, Munster haven't progressed to such a huge occasion in the intervening period, so it is hard to say with confidence how a Munster Heineken Cup final day would look in this day and age.
One thing is for sure, however, and that is that this competition never fails to bring out the best in Munster.
Last season's quarter-final defeat to Toulouse was one of the province's finest performances in years, and proved that, on their day, Munster are a match for any team in Europe. This author was lucky enough to be in the stands that day, and I can count on one hand the occasions I've experienced in any sport which matched it for atmosphere, tension, and community spirit.
That is the epitomy of what makes Munster so special. It is ludicrous to suggest that things such as community and emotion only exist in Munster - but it is also foolish to suggest that the variations of such that exist in the south of Ireland's rugby community are not patently unique in European rugby.
Think of the scenes on O'Connell Street in 2006. Think of the rendition of 'Zombie' rocking the Aviva to its core before extra time against Toulouse in May. Think of the sheer painful emotion and outward grief which spurred the team on in the wake of Anthony Foley's untimely passing.
Munster is a people, and the team are spurred on most when they are down and out. Their best performances have always come when they are up against it - as proven by their phenomenal recent win over South Africa.
Opening weekend of the Heineken Cup brings with it a classic fixture against Toulouse. Ryle Nugent hopes that this Sunday's game against arguably the most frightening prospect in European rugby is the perfect thing for this Munster team:
It feels like it has everything from this distance to start the competition exactly as you’d like it.
You look at the names like Dusautoir, and Foley…Pelous, Howlett, O’Gara, Ntamack Senior, Mick Galwey…these are the names that we all grew up with watching, and that’s just between these two sides. These are guys that have played against each other in this fixture before.
It’s supposed to be cold, and crisp, and dry, you feel like people in Limerick are going to come out - and beyond Limerick around Munster - you’re going to come out and there’s the added spice of the last meeting between the two sides. It’s set up perfectly for Munster to come out with all the odds against them, not playing particularly well.
In some ways, I’m expecting their season to kick start this weekend.
Toulouse visiting Thomond Park, on a freezing cold Sunday afternoon in the Heineken Cup, with Munster up against it and fighting to keep their season alive.
The competition may look very different to how it did even five years ago - but that is about as good as it gets. Stand up and fight, lads.