Seven certainties and lots of big calls in Munster 'Team of the Decade'
Seven men make it straight into the team. It gets tricky after that.
For a province that became a European superpower in the 2000s, the past decade has been relatively lean for Munster Rugby. There was a Celtic League triumph back in 2010/11 but the silverware dried up after that.
Over the past 10 years, Munster have reached more than their fair share of semi-finals (five league, six in Europe) and finals (three league) but only once hoisted a cup. They have dined at the top table but have had to look on as others have quaffed from the goblets of victory.
In selecting a Munster 'Team of the Decade', the close calls of heartbreaks of years 2011 to 2019 all come flooding back. There was the PRO12 final against Scarlets in 2017 and Paul O'Connell's final game against Glasgow Warriors in 2015. In Europe, there was the shock quarter final loss to Ulster (2012) and French revenge, and Saracens have twice proved too strong in the last four.
When it came around to it, the 15 places were laid out and I filled in the unequivocal recipients without hesitation. Seven names came up straight away - Simon Zebo, Keith Earls, Ronan O'Gara, Conor Murray, Dave Kilcoyne, Paul O'Connell, Peter O'Mahony, CJ Stander.
Zebo smashed Munster's try-scoring record in his time there. Earls has been in the senior squad since 2007 and seems to get better every year. O'Gara retired in 2013 but no other out-half has come close to him. Murray is still up there with the world's best No.9s with his 2012 to 2018 years unparalleled in Irish rugby. O'Connell was Munster's leader and talisman all the way up to 2015. Peter O'Mahony and CJ Stander have shared that mantle, and the captaincy, since Paulie retired.
After that, it got tougher and there were two or three men vying for each of the final eight positions. Donnacha Ryan edged out Donncha O'Callaghan, who would have been straight into any 2000 to 2010 selection. Watching Ryan tackle with a fever and disrupt the Munster lineout, in the colours of Racing 92, last month was another reminder of what the province lost when the IRFU stalled too long decent contract.
Doug Howlett played three and a half seasons of the decade and may not have had that raw pace of his younger days but was a class act, nonetheless, until he hung up his boots. The All Blacks' record try-scorer keeps the already excellent yet ever-improving Andrew Conway from the 14 jersey.
BJ Botha is well regarded at Ulster for his three seasons there, after winning a World Cup with South Africa in 2007, but he is equally liked by the Munster faithful. The Durban native played five seasons for Munster and held down his side of the scrum effectively with the 200+ capped Stephen Archer another fine tighthead option over 10 seasons.
Jerry Flannery retired in 2012 but the final years of his career were blighted by injury. Like O'Gara, Munster have never truly found someone to fill that role as effectively and with as much class as Flannery, at his best, possessed. Looking back over the decade, their best hooker over a number of seasons has been their current No.2 Niall Scannell. He has been in the senior squad since 2013/14 and is on the cusp of winning his 100th cap for his home province. Has come into his own over the past few seasons.
Joining O'Mahony and Stander in the back row is Denis Leamy, who played two and a half seasons this decade but was always one of the first names on the team-sheet when fit. Former teammates describe the Tipp native, who edges out Tommy O'Donnell for openside, as one of the finest footballers they have ever shared a pitch with.
One of the toughest departments to fill is midfield. Munster have had a few players that have come and done a job for a season or two but no-one has truly held down jerseys 12 or 13 consistently. Had this team been compiled a year later, Chris Farrell may well have nudged out Casey Laulala but the Samoan, who was voted onto the PRO12 team of the year back in 2014, gets jersey No.13.
Beside him is a player who was the youngest ever to amass 100 caps for the province. Rory Scannell has proved to be a fine second playmaker in the Munster backline and his composed, and clutch, goal-kicking has often come in handy.
Munster Rugby Team of the Decade
15. Simon Zebo
14. Doug Howlett
13. Casey Laulala
12. Rory Scannell
11. Keith Earls
10. Ronan O'Gara
9. Conor Murray
1. Dave Kilcoyne
2. Niall Scannell
3. BJ Botha
4. Donnacha Ryan
5. Paul O'Connell
6. Peter O'Mahony
7. Denis Leamy
8. CJ Stander
*Let us know who makes your Munster Team of the Decade on our social media channels.