"I remember looking at the players, in the warm-up, and Keats was just bawling crying"
"For people outside the province, they might not be aware of how good this guy is but I'm fully convinced he'll play for Ireland."
On the few occasions I would be lucky enough to have a long chat with Ronan O'Gara about rugby, and Munster rugby in particular, he would mention Ronan O'Mahony and tell me the guy was going places.
O'Gara was top dog in Munster, during his playing days, and his opinion still holds a lot of weight in the province. O'Mahony was in and around the senior squad for O'Gara's final few seasons and he will never forget the support and encouragement he received.
"We had one training session with all the senior players, when I was still in the academy," O'Mahony recalls. "I was on ROG's team and we ran the other guys ragged; real high energy stuff. After the session, ROG says, "Jesus kid, that was unreal. If you need anything, going forward, take me number and you can give me a ring'."
"ROG was still the king of Munster," says O'Mahony, "and he ran the show. As a young player, when you got that sort of backing from someone like him, it meant so much. It doesn't leave you. When you go home and think about it, it stays with you. It stays with you when you go into the gym, when you go out onto the pitch. When a player of his calibre backs you, it gives you that extra boost and kick to say, 'F***, I can really become something here'."
The Limerick native would go on to play 70 times for Munster and score 21 tries for them. His best ever season was 2016/17, when Rassie Erasmus took over as director of rugby, and he scored 11 tries in 23 games [22 starts].
"I was top try-scorer in the league and I was trying to eye up Ireland's summer tour to the USA and Japan. I thought I was maybe in for a shout for it. We were playing Treviso, over there, and it was a beautiful sunny day. I thought, 'Lovely, another couple of tries today and another good performance'.
"About 20 minutes in, I broke my leg and that put an end to it all."
Aged 27 at the time, O'Mahony knew the injury was bad. Even at his lowest, though, he must never had thought that it was the beginning of the end.
Having ROG in his corner certainly helped but it was another Munster legend, Anthony Foley, that helped him realise his dreams of playing with the senior squad.
O'Mahony was part of an Ireland U20 squad, in 2009, that was ridiculously talented. "The Munster crew would have been myself, Peter O'Mahony, Conor Murray and Andrew Burke. Dave O'Callaghan was about too. That Irish 20s team, I think nearly every player in the backline got capped.
"Matt Healy, who is a winger at Connacht now, was our scrumhalf. Him and Murray were our 9s. We had Ian Madigan and Ian McKinley as our 10s. Eamonn Sheridan, who would have played for London Irish and in France, Dave Kearney and Michael Keating, who was at Leinster."
O'Mahony played his first Munster 'A' game in November 2009 and was part of a the same 'A' side that won the British and Irish Cup in 2012. Still, it took him four years after his involvement in the 2009 U20 Six Nations to earn his first senior cap with Munster.
"Anthony Foley's first coaching job was my Munster Under 20s team," O'Mahony recalls, "and as I progressed into the 'A' team, that was Axel's next job. A load of us went through and he started formulating this unbelievable 'A' team. Niall O'Donovan was our manager, Ian Costello was our backs coach and then you had Axel and Ken O'Connell, who'd be one of the biggest legends ever.
"We used to go away to Wales and play teams like Neath and Aberavon, who'd be unbelievably hard-core. Some of the toughest games I ever played were against those sides. They'd put serious manners on you. We'd have great nights out and have great sessions The whole thing was, 'Lads, we have to win. It'll make the session so much better!' We'd be going out and going into war, just so we could have a good night out!"
As much as he enjoyed the 'A' experience, O'Mahony was left frustrated, in his early 20s, about not breaking into the senior set-up. "I didn't make my senior debut until I was around 23," he says.
"If there had maybe been a foreign coach in there, they might not have known the system as well and would have let me go earlier. But Axel had that emotional intelligence and knew that young Munster players often need that extra bit of time to develop and to grow. He always gave players the benefit of the doubt, especially young fellas, and you can see how many came through during his era."
Foley was forwards coach, under Rob Penney, when O'Mahony first broke into the Munster team. He made his debut at the end of the 2012/13 season and a further eight appearances in what turned out to be Penney's final season with the club. Foley took over in July 2014 and O'Mahony began to feature more regularly [33 games and seven tries].
O'Mahony's best contribution, during Foley's two years as head coach, came in the final game of the 2015/16 season as he scored in a try in a win over Scarlets that secured European Cup qualification. It was a result that salvaged Munster's proud history of elite level European involvement but the province - sensing a need to push on - brought in Rassie Erasmus as director of rugby.
For Foley, it meant he could concentrate on the on-field coaching, which he revelled in. For O'Mahony, his game would kick on to the next level.
"When Rassie first came to Munster, he was a good fan of mine and played me a lot. Everyone is a good player but not everyone gets good opportunities. Rassie gave me a good lot of opportunities and chances to play week-in and week-out. I was able to find a rhythm."
O'Mahony started five games of Erasmus' first seven in charge as Munster got off to a decent start to the season. Then, on October 16 in Paris, tragedy struck as Foley died in his sleep the night before a European tie with Racing 92.
"I was down to start that game. I didn't think I was going to as I'd played Leinster the week before and had a shocker, but Rassie had this unbelievable faith in me. He gave me the nod for that game but it was then just an unbelievably difficult game for everyone.
"You'd just be in shock for the entire week and then you have to go out, the following weekend, and play against Glasgow. It was, hands down, the best atmosphere - before, during and after - for a game I've ever been involved in, my whole life. It was phenomenal.
"I remember in the warm-up, looking at the players, and remember Keats [Ian Keatley] was just bawling crying. It was a real emotional moment and, in fairness to the fans and everyone that came out, it really drove us on. I think we won 17 or 18 games out of our next 20."
"Rassie was the type of guy that knew what to say and how to address every situation," O'Mahony recalls.
"Team meetings weren't just team meetings. You'd be coming in and there'd be this level of excitement about what was going to happen. He was the best coach I'd ever seen. Himself and Jacques [Nienaber] just knew how to manage players, plan each week and how to change training environments to suit us for the teams we'd be playing. It was incredible how they operated."
"As a motivator," O'Mahony adds, "he was just hard. He was a hard man and he took away that softness. We probably had this underlying softness and we didn't even realise. Lads stepping out of training with a little niggle or a sore back. Rassie just brought in that if you don't train, you're not getting picked. After a week or two, lads started to realise, 'Jesus, I'm not getting picked here'.
"You'd go in for training or for the walk-through on a Monday. You'd be absolutely crippled but you'd be rocking up with the boots on. You'd be barely doing it but you'd be just trying to get through the session to show you'd be ready for the next weekend. He brought this hard edge to us and we had this hard defence. I don't think it was ever better than it was under Jacques."
With Jaco Taute having the season of his life in the Munster backline and the defence at its' meanest, Erasmus and Nienaber had their team well set.
Munster reached the final of the Guinness PRO12, that 2016/17 season, and destroyed Toulouse in a Champions Cup quarter final to tee up a home semi against Saracens.
"Growing up," says O'Mahony, "you'd hear about teams going to the well two or three times a year, when it really counted, but Rassie blew all of that out of the water. He was making us go to the well every week, and that was it. You go and if your body breaks, it's next man in. Get the job done too.
"In fairness, with all the emotional energy and attachment that came it Axel passing away, and the crowd getting in behind us, we tried to keep those spirits so high. We felt like we were going to the well every week. We were winning goals with late scores and lads getting drop goals in the last minutes. It got to the stage where no-one wanted to say anything. Say nothing and keep going because this is going so well. We had such confidence in the team that we were rocking up each week going, 'Who's next?'"
A high-wire season ended without silverware, though, as Munster ran into two great teams - Scarlets in the PRO12 and Saracens in Europe - at the Aviva Stadium. O'Mahony watched on from afar as he recovered from the leg break that would eventually finish his career.
When the winger broke his leg, against Treviso, there was a plate inserted and the bone eventually healed. However, the same leg fracture also left him with a dislocated ankle and 'ripped away a lot of the weight-bearing cartilage'. The surgeon, he remembers, did a decent patch-up job but did warn that walking and running would bring pain.
"When you're injured, you're on high alert and trying to rush back and get fit for games again. And you never actually give the injury a chance to heal. You're just constantly at it and constantly at it. I was trying to rehab it and it kept breaking down on me."
"I could train on a Monday," he adds, "but the ankle would blow up and I could do nothing for three days and then I'd be out the following week. I was fighting so hard. All I wanted to do was play for Munster. It came to the stage where I was like, 'Jeez, I just want to play for Munster one more time'."
He played once during the 2017/18 season and it was new head coach Johann van Graan - after Erasmus and Nienaber took over the Springboks - while he travelled to Dublin and London to do further rehab. Over in England, ankle specialist Dr. James Calder told him that ankle fusion would be the only way to possibly salvage his career, but it could lead to day-to-day difficulties once he eventually retired.
"When you're trying to compete with the likes of Keith Earls and Andrew Conway, you have to be able to give it everything," he says. "I remember coming home on the flight and telling myself that if I wasn't able to properly compete with the lads, I'd be missing a beat. I'd be better off making the right call."
Having played against Dragons and Zebre, earlier in the season, O'Mahony laced up his boots one final time, at Parc Y Scarlets.
"I didn't think he would, but Johann picked me to play Scarlets in early March. I'd a lot of anxiety around the injury and performance, but I got through it. I was 95% sure this would be my final game and I went out in a Munster jersey, starting. It was a very strange feeling.
"JJ Hanrahan was out running the water that day. We lost the game and JJ gave me a hug in the changing room, after. I think he knew. He knew by my face and my energy. He knew it was it, and so did I. Four weeks later, I called it a day.
"Straight after that game, my leg was back into an ice bucket. I always wanted rugby to be enjoyable and it had gone beyond that point. The injury was just taking its' toll on me."
Once the decision to retire had been made, O'Mahony describes the sense of relief 'as if someone had taken a chain off me'. He broke down in front of the squad, at the High Performance Centre, when he let them know he was giving up the fight. From that day on, though, his focus changed.
"I didn't miss the pre-season [that summer] but when I saw the new jersey coming out, and the fresh look, I was like, 'Feck, I'm missing out on that now!' You do miss the changing room, though. Every day, you're in there with your mates. 50 of us in there together, booting balls off each other, going to the gym, for coffees and having the craic."
In 2019, O'Mahony helped out coaching the Munster Schools squad and, last season, was coaching the Munster U19s. Munster were sound enough to send him two season tickets in the post after he retired.
Keeping a hand in with rugby has been good for him, and has given him an extra excuse to keep fit. "I was talking to a lot of lads after I retired and the common denominator was that all of them stopped training," he says.
"You'd have a drink midweek, wake up half hungover, look at yourself in the mirror and you'd be looking like sh**, compared to what you used to be like. So I said, 'Feck that', the one thing I'm going to do is keep training at some sort of level. It has definitely kept keep the mind fresh. I've not done a whole lot of running, though, because the ankle does get at me the odd time."
He has not dived into full-time work since hanging up his boots but has been kept busy by a house move and the arrival, 10 weeks ago, of a baby boy.
"Hopefully one day now," he remarks, "I'll be able to go watch him play six-a-side soccer or rugby, or whatever he wants to do."