SINCE his debut for Ireland last October, Jerry Flannery’s stock has risen faster than a wildcat oil company with a major gusher on its hands.
The wild blond mane has become synonymous with an Ireland which evolved into a new, hungry and winning outfit.
He’s hardly had time to scratch since making his Irish debut against Romania as the realisation has dawned on many people that what Munster fans were claiming about this tungsten-tough discovery was actually true: he is the real deal.
Having solved the hooker problem facing Eddie O’Sullivan, his immediate aim now is to repay Munster for giving him his break.
His quietly spoken off-pitch demeanour belies his ferocity on it, but there is no doubt that Flannery has bought into the idea that it’s about time Munster won the Heineken Cup.
“You only have to look at the likes of Stephen Keogh or Trevor Hogan and the effort they put in,” he says. “They train so hard and they’re such squad players, they give everyone else the realisation that you can take nothing for granted, no matter who you are.”
Even so, his explosion onto the international scene must give rise to the fear of fatigue.
Flannery thinks not.
“I could be sitting here fresh as a daisy after sitting on the bench for the last 12 weeks, but I’d prefer to be a little bit sore with a good few tough games under my belt. I’ve been very fortunate, but in fitness terms, it’s just a question of finding a balance between training and resting - that’s the important thing. At this stage of the season you’re not going to be making any huge gains. Really, you’re just working on what you’ve done in the pre-season, sustaining that and building on it little by little.”
Even given his triumphant emergence as an international beacon, he is very keenly aware that the Munster support want him to translate that into something they can cherish.
“You switch into ‘Irish’ mode when you’re up there in camp, but I can tell you that even in the aftermath of the Triple Crown, I had Munster supporters saying: ‘Listen, forget all that Triple Crown stuff, focus on the Perpignan game.’ So it is not that difficult to re-adjust to being in a ‘Munster’ frame of mind.
“Everywhere you go, there’s so much build-up and anticipation that it is very easy as a player to re-focus your attention to what’s needed.
“It was disappointing not to have a run against Llanelli last weekend, but the other side of that is the question of how much we could have taken out of it for what will happen this weekend. And you have to consider also would we have had a good blowout or what could have turned into a shit-fight in terrible conditions. Either way, it didn’t happen and you look to the positives - like we didn’t pick up any injuries.”
For many diehard Munster fans the thought of playing at Lansdowne Road rather than ‘fortress’ Thomond is a blow. “Certainly it is good to play at Thomond where the visitors have to face such a hostile crowd. But in a European Cup quarter-final, it’s just another 80 minutes on the pitch.
Thomond is a factor, certainly, and we saw that in the Sale game. But it is a factor more for the opposition than for us because it is not going to help us secure our set piece or make tackles.
“But the fans really do intimidate the opposition and if that takes their mind off the game - even for a split second - then it gives us the chance to do damage. But that will be no different at Lansdowne Road because there will be a lot more people there and we know the majority of the support will be on our side.”
He adds: “The thing is that teams like Perpignan are used to playing in intimidating atmospheres, so this is not going to throw them out of step.
“You only have to look at what they did to Leinster a couple of years ago. Our attitude now is that we will not let that happen to us and we are well-prepared mentally on that front. We will just have to concentrate on how we play our own game.”
Flannery was on the Munster bench for the semi-final against Wasps two years ago and he still has vivid memories of his first big-match occasion at Lansdowne Road and, on that basis, he has no fears about the supporters lacking the sort of intensity they display at Thomond Park “I was sat beside Mossie Lawlor on the coach on the way to the game and it was goosebumps all the way. I asked Peter Stringer was it like this for every international and I was surprised when he said ‘no.’ It was a sea of red everywhere. This year when I played for Ireland, I realised how special that support is. It is unreal.”
Given the problems Declan Kidney has had this week trying to finalise his selection, one wonders if his concerns transmit to the players who will ultimately take the pitch. Flannery, emphatically, says no.
“From my own point of view, I know this squad inside out - from 1 to 42 and I am happy to play with any of them. I’ve no problem taking the field with whoever is picked because I know they’re all honest, hardworking players. That what the whole Munster ethic is based on - honesty, aggression and hard work. Consequently I’ve no problem with whatever selection is made.
“And on the other side of it, we have to be prepared for whatever they throw against us. Certainly the coaches can give us an idea of what might happen, but again you can take nothing for granted. Micko (O’Driscoll) has been giving us an idea of what we should expect and what they might be thinking, based on his experiences with them, but you never know what team will turn up on the day and your preparations have to be based on that. We’ve prepared on the basis that we will meet a ferocious Perpignan team and we’re ready to match that and dominate them. That’s the only plan.”
It’s been said so often of this Munster team that there is a Heineken Cup monkey on their backs which they are very anxious to shed, that it has become a cliché, but it is one the players cannot and will not adhere to.
“There is expectation among the fans,” Flannery points out, “and rightly so, but we (the players) can’t go round thinking ‘this is our year’ or anything like that, because that alters your mental state going into a game like this. We just have to get out there and go as hard as we can for 80 minutes and let the result take care of itself. I’ve confidence in every player to do their job and if they do that we can win. Unfortunately it sounds a bit more simple than it is.
“We know that they are going to be unpredictable, but the best thing we can do is focus on what we do well. We can think about what they might do, but there is no real point because they’re so unpredictable. All we can do is take on board the fact they’ve very elusive backs and a massive pack.
“People think that because they’re from the south of France that it’s all sunshine rugby with them. But you look at the video and one week they’re playing in the snow against someone and it’s all pick-and-go; the next week it’s sunny and they’re throwing the ball around to beat the band. We just have to concentrate on what we can do and what we do well.”