Marcus Horan's welcome return to the provincial fray last weekend was at once greeted with affectionate acclaim and chilly condescension by Irish rugby supporters.
There were those — a tumultuous majority, it has to be said — for whom Horan's comeback from a minor heart procedure undertaken before Christmas was a boon for a flagging front-row, and a harbinger of good fortune as the serious rugby business of the spring kicks into full gear.
And yet there were others, unafraid to vocalise their thoughts in the game's aftermath, who witnessed Horan crumpling beneath the Northampton scrum and questioned whether the loose-head's return actually made things any better.
It has always been thus during the long, distinguished career of Marcus Horan. One which, according to his harshest critics, is nearing its winter; others, though, proclaim loudly that Horan will continue to nail down the No 1 jersey for the 2011 World Cup.
Whatever the public discourse, it is clear that this Six Nations campaign will go a long way towards deciding how integral a place Horan has in Declan Kidney's plans, starting for the ‘A’ team in Bath on Sunday; after all, Ireland fared pretty well without the Clare native in the November internationals.
On October 17, after Horan succumbed to dizziness within the opening 10 minutes against Treviso, mystery shrouded his sudden disappearance from the Thomond Park fray. It was reported that he “wasn't feeling well” and that he had had a “dizzy spell”.
What was clear was that he had visibly suffered in a defensive scrum, to such an extent that he was wobbling on his feet as Treviso ran in their second try through his defensive channel.
Given the interest in unexplained illness in sport, the predictably flammable Irish rumour machine hit overdrive: text messages and “reliably sourced” babble disseminated via the internet filled the growing vacuum.
Bizarrely, the rugby authorities, from Munster to the IRFU, remained silent until the IRFU released a statement confirming that the player “had undergone a medical procedure”.
The notoriously private Horan was understandably reluctant to allow details to emerge publicly; Kidney, with whom he has had a close professional relationship for over a decade, owed the player his fidelity.
A shocked Horan had no history of heart trouble, yet he had been aware of some discomfort for some four years. Ultimately, the condition was common and treatable. A day after his surgery, several newspapers referred to the fact that Horan's procedure involved his heart. One newspaper went as far as to refer to a similar procedure undertaken on Horan's former Munster colleague Frankie Sheahan in 2008.
“He (Sheahan) has no doubt that not only will the procedure help to extend Horan's career, but he will feel stronger and better than before,” the paper said.
After the medical attention, he waited.
“I suppose I wondered whether I might ever get the chance to play again and whether that game was to have been my last game at Thomond Park,” he said later. “Had that been the case it would have been disappointing, because when I retire, I would like it to be on my terms.”
Wian Du Preez was recruited on a short-term deal from South Africa and Munster stunned Perpignan away to get their Heineken Cup hopes back on track. Cian Healy starred for Ireland.
Even if Horan did return in January, would there be a place for him? If life had taught him anything, it was to be prepared to fight for your place.
Even when he became established in the Ireland team (he would point to Lion Tom Smith as a chief influence), the folklore always seemed to attach itself to the man across the row — a certain John Hayes. Hayes was the chief Bull; Horan was portrayed as the wild young bull. Kidney did much to calm him in his early days. Despite establishing himself with Munster and Ireland, ex-players and TV critics jostled in the queue to become the first to declare that Horan would be destroyed in his next encounter.
Horan remembers watching Ireland's 2005 Triple Crown from his home, his head a swirl of differing emotions as he watched Corrigan take the plaudits. He regained the jersey that summer and hasn't relented. Until now.
His former team-mate Sheahan reckons it is premature to pen Horan's rugby obituary.
“When you have a second bite of something, it can even make you hungrier than before. He's a winner. He's been in scraps and knows how to come out the other side,” reckons Sheahan.
Horan, at 32 relatively young for a prop, has lived his life and career with a consistent mantra — no regrets.
“I'd like to finish my rugby career without having any regrets,” he said, before embarking on last year's Grand Slam odyssey.
“If you don't achieve these things, you can't say it's a regret — it's something you've challenged for and you keep fighting for. As long as I can still wear the jersey, I'll fight hard for that.”
Once a fighter, always a fighter.