Jerry Flannery on the Grand Slam: ‘You only really appreciate the magnitude of it when you look back’

Jerry Flannery was a member of the Irish team which completed the Six Nations Grand Slam in 2009. An outstanding hooker who helped Munster to win the Heineken Cup in 2006 and 2008, he represented Ireland on 41 occasions. Ahead of Ireland’s bid for more Grand Slam glory on Saturday he spoke to Charlie Mulqueen

Jerry Flannery on the Grand Slam: ‘You only really appreciate the magnitude of it when you look back’

Charlie Mulqueen: Was there any expectation of such a fantastic campaign before a ball was kicked back in 2009?

Jerry Flannery: None whatsoever. In the autumn, we had beaten Fiji and Argentina and lost to New Zealand and it was really all about getting the group together under the new coaching team, Deccie (Kidney), Gert (Smaal), Les (Kiss) and Alan Gaffney. It was a completely new regime.

Q. The campaign began against France at Croke Park on February 7. Ireland won a tight match 30-21. What do you remember about that game?

A. You don’t really know where you are as a team because you haven’t been together much up to that point. So in each game you are putting down a marker as to where you stand. We were well drilled and scored an excellent try through Jamie (Heaslip) which we had spent a lot of time working on. And then I think our scrambled defence was pretty good, the French had Jauzion in the centre and a lot of established players with an awful lot of experience so when they came together they ran it themselves but without much structure. It was a little bit of a surprise that we beat them but we were at home, Rog kicked his goals and Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy scored tries. It was still a little difficult to peg where the team might be going because we had a lot of change to deal with. We were looking to see how everyone would come together and what way the coaches set out the game plan.

Q. I presume taking on Italy, even in Rome, was a bit of a cakewalk after the tough game against the French.

A. I thought we were lucky to have France at home in the first match. We got a lot of momentum from that and so, yes, Italy second up was much easier and we were much more confident going into the England game. We got four tries and won 38-9.

Q. England at Twickenham is always a very tough affair and judging from a 14-13 scoreline ’09 was no different?

A. I remember it being extremely attritional. I’m not sure it was a great game in terms of the rugby that was played but it’s always massive when you get to beat England, especially at Twickenham. It was very satisfying. I’m not sure if they were playing cohesively. Martin Johnson was coach and I think they had some discipline problems. Danny Care got a yellow card for a tackle on Marcus Horan and that was a huge help to us. When you look at the Six Nations back then, you would have regarded England and France as the two teams you would most likely come a cropper against.

You can paint a different narrative now but looking back at it, we were literally going game by game. We didn’t go into the tournament saying we were going to win a Six Nations or a Grand Slam. We were trying to gel and come together as a group.

We were still all feeling each other out, the management and the players, and each game we got a little bit closer without ever talking and going, ‘there’s a Grand Slam on here’. Not even when we beat England.

Q. From Twickenham it was on to Murrayfield where Declan Kidney had a surprise in store for yourself and quite a few others.

A. Yeah, he brought in a raft of changes ... myself, he changed Jamie, brought in Strings for Tomás, Gordon D’Arcy came in for Paddy Wallace. At the time, Gordon’s career was in trouble, he was just coming back from a badly broken arm. At the time, Lifeimi Mafi was playing 12 for Munster and wasn’t an option and with Darce not playing a huge amount of rugby, Paddy was probably the forerunner going into the tournament. I remember after every game, Paddy was cut and battered. You probably don’t appreciate how tough that 12 position can be, with the way we were playing at the time, and there was an awful lot of traffic coming down his channel. He wasn’t the biggest guy in the world but he put himself about.

Jerry Flannery recieves his Six Nations medal from Prince William in 2009. Pic: INPHO/Billy Stickland
Jerry Flannery recieves his Six Nations medal from Prince William in 2009. Pic: INPHO/Billy Stickland

Anyway, on to Scotland. When Deccie brought me up to tell me I was out, I was raging. I said to him, we have the potential to win a Grand Slam and you’re taking it out of my hands, I can’t affect our chances of doing it because you’re not picking me. I can joke about it now but I was deadly serious at the time. I was incredulous that I wasn’t playing. And then in training, I did a fair bit of damage to my shoulder and I was doubtful even for the bench and Bernard Jackman was brought over as standby. Two days out, I couldn’t reach the arm over my head. It just locked up. But I made the game and came on with 20 minutes or so to go.

This memory is very clear to me. We beat Scotland 22-15 and we had a light session on the Monday and again I couldn’t lift my arm over my head. I should have taken painkillers or anti-inflammatories and I was pissed off with myself for not doing so. I went up for the team announcement and I was thinking, I’ve lost my chance to start against Wales because I didn’t take painkillers. I was taking strapping off my wrist when I heard Deccie call my name for number 2. I couldn’t believe I was in. That was that and I made sure I was medicated for the rest of the week.

Q. The excitement and expectation at the prospect of only a second Grand Slam in history must have been difficult for everyone associated with the team to ignore. How did it impinge on the players?

A. We were in Fitzpatrick’s Castle Hotel from Monday to Wednesday and in to the Shelbourne on Thursday. There obviously was massive hype about the game but travelling over to Wales helped us a bit because if you’re staying in the Shelbourne and walking around Dublin, everyone is bananas.

The painkillers seemed to fix the shoulder problem until I got a really serious stinger and lost all the power in my arm in the warm-up before the game. I started the game and got through it and just before half-time their second-row lined me up and drilled me and my blood was everywhere. I remember getting stitched up at half-time as Deccie was talking. We were 6-0 down at that stage to two Stephen Jones penalties but got two tries immediately after the restart by Brian O’Driscoll and Tommy Bowe.

O’Driscoll was incredible that year. I don’t think I had seen him so fit and so lean and so powerful. That was the best I had seen him at, you know he’s an incredible talent but to see the consistency of his performances and how he trained every single day when he got on the field was magnificent. You add that in with his level of talent and he was incredible that season.

I think I came off with seven or eight minutes to go in Cardiff. Stephen Ferris had come off very early ... he broke his thumb or his hand. You’re so stuck in what’s going on that I saw Leamy beside me and didn’t know he was there! Lukey Fitz, Ferris and myself were watching the last eight minutes when Stephen Jones lined up the last-minute penalty. I felt, I don’t believe we’re going to lose this game. It was like watching a horror movie from the sideline. When I first saw the flight of the ball, I said, ‘yeah, that’s going over’ and dropping my head — but then it seemed to drop short and Geordan Murphy was booting it out.

Before Rog’s drop goal, it was 15-14 to Wales, but we knew we had the confidence to come back. It may sound like bullshit when we say that, that it’s just for the media, that you gain momentum from winning matches — but you do, you know. I didn’t have anything to make me super confident going into the French game but by the Welsh game, I was thinking if we go behind, I know we can come back so when Rog got the drop goal, I wasn’t shocked, you’d have confidence that he could take that chance if we managed to get field position.

A nice kind of hell broke out when Jones’s penalty dropped short and we were only the second Irish team to win a Six Nations Grand Slam. I was just so battered physically that it took me three weeks to get myself anyway right. I felt like I had been in a car crash after the game. For two days, I could barely move, my neck and shoulder were killing me.

I know that what we did really registered with the people. But it’s weird. When you win a European Cup or a League, you’re not going to play another game with your club until the next season. So, it’s like you can celebrate and really enjoy that victory. But when you win the Six Nations or the Grand Slam, you have a game the following week or two weeks’ time. There isn’t that honeymoon period after it when you’re basking in the glory of how amazing you are but with time you look back and realise that it was something special and something that can’t be taken away from you.

So you enjoy it for what it is and you only really appreciate the magnitude of it when you look back, that historically this hasn’t been achieved before.

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