Jerry Flannery went all the way from Galway to Grand Slam hero as he became Ireland’s first-choice hooker during a stellar career and now he is backing another Connacht product to do the same.
Dave Heffernan might be at the start of his Test career, but the man in whose footsteps he hopes to follow has seen enough in the 29-year-old back-row convert to be convinced he can slot seamlessly into the famous No 2 shirt previously owned by Rory Best. The 29-year-old Heffernan was forced to wait in the wings while Best went on to win 124 caps over a 14-year period.
Best’s are big shoes to fill, just as there were for Flannery in 2006 when he took over from back-to-back British & Irish Lions Keith Wood and Shane Byrne.
“The hooker slot in the Irish national team is wide open. I think Rob Herring did a reasonable job when he came in, but there are a few other lads around,” said Flannery.
“When Ronan Kelleher gets more experience under his belt at Leinster he’ll be in the mix. Sean Cronin is obviously still there and thereabouts and Heffernan is a good player.
“He plays bigger than he actually is as a converted back-row forward. His fundamentals are pretty decent, but it will come down to form in the end.
“I don’t think there is anyone who has got a particular skillset that marks them out ahead of anyone else, but Heffernan is ready to contribute at that level.
“Ireland are in a period of transition anyway after the departure of Joe Schmidt so someone will have to step in and own the jersey. They will have to define what makes them undroppable and show to Andy Farrell they have the required levels of energy and aggression.
“You can’t replace the huge amount of experience Rory brought to the Irish team. That can only come over a period of time.”
Flannery is an interested on-looker of the Irish rugby scene right now having recently taken-up a post as lineout coach at English Premiership club Harlequins.
He has joined a back-room team that boasts former England defence coach Paul Gustard as head honcho, ex Wales and Lions prop Adam Jones, rugby league legend Sean Long, and ex-All Blacks out-half Nick Evans. It is not the first time Flannery — who won two Heineken Cups with Munster — has headed to London to ply his trade. He spent a period at Arsenal working as a strength and conditioning coach with the Premier League giants before returning to Limerick.
“I really enjoyed my time at Arsenal and I learned a lot there. It made me realise just how much I love rugby,” he added.
“I learned football pays better than rugby, but there are things that come with that. Because of the financial implications of long-term contracts in football it means you aren’t always going to get players being as driven. As a result, you may not get the same level of accountability around performance that you would find in rugby where all the players and coaches are on short-term contracts. Nobody is going to be financially secure from a good rugby career.
“Everyone has to work that little bit harder and is a bit more grounded because there isn’t as much money in the game. Because of the size of the transfer deals in football a lot of players get paid on potential when they are very young and that can be a bit of a poisoned chalice.
“So far at Harlequins I’ve found a group of players that are really driven.”
Quins have got nine games left to play in the regular Premiership season and are in seventh place, seven points off the play-off places. It’s all to play for when the action re-starts at The Twickenham Stoop on August 14 with high-flying Sale Sharks the visitors.