MARCUS HORAN and Jerry Flannery are serious rugby players, two ultra-professional men who take every game personally.
Shoulder to shoulder, with long-time team-mate John Hayes on the other side of the front row, they go into every game with Munster and with Ireland as if going into battle, which, in a sense, they are.
The front row is front line, it’s populated by hardmen, by strongmen, by guys for whom full-on confrontation is a way of life. In such circumstances you’ve got to be able to trust the man alongside you.
And so, side by side they are paraded in front of the media this week, in advance of Saturday’s Heineken Cup semi-final against Leinster, unlikely twins. Suddenly, Horan turns to his comrade, sniffs, turns away.
“Some of us actually showered, lads,” he announces, scornfully, looking askance at an abashed Jerry.
Horan is all spick and span in his casual-wear Munster gear, Jerry is still in practice uniform, grass-soiled and sweat-soaked from a two-hour run-out.
“I’m going for a swim later on,” he says, by way of semi-embarrassed explanation.
That’s the way with these guys; die for each other on the pitch, demolish each other off it, and the more devastating the one-liner the better.
A few minutes later, when asked if there will be a bit of bitterness in his play on Saturday, given he was one of only three from the Grand Slam-winning Ireland starting XV who didn’t make the Lions, Marcus was adamant: “I don’t think so – Jesus! I don’t know if I have reason for any bitterness, I don’t know how close I was, or how far away I was. I don’t think about it, it would be very selfish of me to be thinking like that. Saturday is completely different, it’s about Munster, it’s about what we do as a group. I’m absolutely delighted for the guys we have going on the Lions trip but that’s not going to win us this game. My focus is on my job, doing the things that got us here. You try to draw on stuff to motivate you but that isn’t one of them, for me.”
But, from the look he cast at his team-mate, Flannery wasn’t convinced, and why would he be? The best front-row unit in the recent Six Nations was Horan/Flannery/Hayes, yet neither of the Irish props was named alongside the hooker for the tour to South Africa.
Given the gruelling Horan gave Phil Vickery – who is named – in Ireland’s win over England in Croke Park, given how superbly both Munster props perform at lineout time and in the open field, how could he not be bitter at this glaring omission?
The irony, of course, is that both props could actually have lost their places on foot of the most recent meeting of Munster and Leinster. On April 4, just a couple of weeks after the glory of the Grand Slam, Leinster went to Thomond Park and in the first half hour of the Magners League tie, proceeded to dictate matters up front.
Understandable, of course, the Munster trio had been through hell and back during the international campaign, then got a taste of heaven after the final match in Cardiff, and would surely have been suffering a hangover from all that.
As it turned out, Munster went on to win comfortably after Leinster kicker Felipe Contepomi failed to convert that early dominance into points, but it may have mattered when Lions coach Ian McGeechan sat down to do his sums.
Afterwards there were reports the Leinster front five were more than happy with their display on the night.
“I didn’t know that,” said Horan. “It was a pretty tough battle up front, as usual. You’re always trying to get one over against people you know, people you play with. It will definitely be a tough battle on Saturday, so from that aspect the scrums will be an important part of the game.
“We’re always looking to improve in every area; we won that game but we were always going to be fairly critical when we came back to watch it. I don’t think it’s a big issue for us but if Leinster were talking about it after the game as a positive to take out of it, that’s fine for them. But it’s not an issue for us.”
Of more concern to Jerry was that far too many are placing too much emphasis on the scoreline (30-6) when Munster won the last Heineken Cup semi-final meeting of the sides in 2006.
“When I think back on that, people seem to think it was a whitewash, whereas in reality the scoreboard flattered us. It was only when we got a few late scores we could feel comfortable. Leinster have progressed again from that game, they’ve beefed up their pack considerably and we saw that in their quarter-final win over Quins, and if anything their backline has also got even better, they have Luke Fitzgerald in there now, Contepomi, D’Arcy, O’Driscoll . We know from playing with them how they can pull things out of nothing, a bit of magic. You can never switch off, you can’t afford a down period. We’re taking nothing for granted.”
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