Jerry Flannery: Munster still have X factor and are ready for Clermont challenge

Former hooker has embraced his new role with province but he still misses playing

 

Jerry Flannery loved being a player. Best job in the world. At 36 he could still be doing it but for the calf injuries that eventually forced him to retire at 33. The last three years of his career were so painful that he readily walked away, content with his lot. But what he missed most was the results business. It gave his weeks a purpose.

There was plenty else in his life: his interest in the website joe.ie, his TG4 punditry and his masters in strength and conditioning which in turn led to a year with Arsenal before Anthony Foley asked him to become Munster scrum coach. That he’s back in the Munster firmament is a little bit of a surprise for Flannery – not that he particularly has a grand plan in mind.

“I didn’t think I’d be back here so quickly. I would always have thought that maybe it would have been a different environment when I came back, but that X factor is still there. And it’s just because of the way the lads are brought up and how they want to play.

“Your fear would always be that if it was something real special while you were playing, then you go away and come back, and that they don’t give a f**k, or something like that. But since I’ve come back I’ve seen how hard the players work and I’ve seen how driven they are and it’s a pleasure to work with them.”

‘Flah’ hasn’t changed. He still speaks with the same intelligent intensity, still gives every question due consideration. He’d always found the technical side of coaching with the forwards quite “tangible”, particularly co-ordinating eight men into a cohesive scrum.

“I think I got a good grounding in body mechanics from doing the masters and working in Arsenal, and learning how to get the right point across and not getting too many points across,” he says.

Suddenly a genius

“When I played I always saw the coaches as the lads that would help me to play well, but when we won, it was all about the players. And it still is. You can work your ass off in a 60-hour week as a coach and all you’re trying to do is nudge them in a general direction. They have to be the ones going with it.”

The Munster scrum is “going reasonable”. No more, no less. He’d imagined that the law changes to reduce the hit would have made the scrums more, as he puts it, “reffable” but he pores through videos and discovers that, while there have been improvements, many decisions still go the wrong way, both ways.

Foley has been shrewd enough to allow some cross-fertilisation between himself and the rest of his indigenous brains trust. Flannery’s remit is as a scrum coach, primarily to the senior and A sides, but also developing the academy and “future proofing the Munster scrum”. However, he’s also worked with Ian Costello on the defence and on the breakdown in recent weeks.

By rights, but for cruelly timed injuries he could easily have been remembered as both Munster’s and Ireland’s best ever hooker, with a Lions’ Test series thrown in. Overall though, with two Heineken Cup winners medals and a Grand Slam, Flannery can be proud of his career. “I loved my career. I feel very, very lucky. I got to play a class sport and earn a living from it for a few years, so don’t whinge about it.”

In his last three seasons, he played just eight games for Munster. “I never thought the injuries were enough to end my career but I began to hate rugby. I see lads getting injured here and my heart goes out to them.”

In the 2010-11 season, he was a broken man, but made one more concerted effort and got to the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand, playing four warm-up games. So even though his World Cup lasted only 19 minutes, he looks back on that tournament as a bonus. “I was so close to having to retire and hating the game.”

He recalls one training session on the sidelines watching Jamie Heaslip, Gavin Duffy and Seán O’Brien “killing themselves” before ending up high-fiving. It was too much to bear. He implored Ireland’s strength and conditioning coach Philip Morrow to put him through the wringer and he came through it. “All you want is respect from your peers.”

Flannery played the last quarter of the opening 22-10 win over the USA, and would never play for Munster and Ireland again. “I’d felt like a guy who had been brought up to camp and hadn’t earned it, and when I got to go out and play, I felt so much better.”

Welcome change

“Arsenal invest in their facilities, and the money they invest in their staff and their young players. When you take a footballer at 15 or 16, only a tiny percentage come through. I see how it’s a tough, tough journey for them. A lot of them are very, very lonely, and a lot of them don’t have a mentor, like I had here with Donncha (O’Callaghan) or Paulie (O’Connell). I’d never begrudge any of them the money they might earn.”

He was struck by the sheer vastness of the Arsenal organisation, as compared to the intimacy of Munster. He has also been encouraged to discover how well the province is regenerating itself from within, but he makes an interesting allowance.

“That team,” says Flannery of his predecessors from the late ’90s to early noughties, “got about six years of grace before it won something, and that’s a long time to stay together. And the supporters backed them.

“Then we made a breakthrough in 2006 and won it again in 2008, and the best Munster team I played on was 2009 and Leinster beat us and deservedly so, but because that standard has been set, the newer lads have got to win it within two years. It’s so much harder than what we had to do.”

Even in those “peaks” of the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons, Munster beat Clermont at home but struggled to live with them away, only squeezing through on head-to-head in ’08 after finishing level on 19 points thanks to a bonus-point defeat in France. “In the past I remember we played [ Vilimoni] Delasau, that Fijian winger, ‘we’ve got to watch his left-foot step, it is dangerous’. So we talked about it all the time ‘Delasau, left-foot step’. We were shouting it and next minute he gets the ball and he steps Quinny [Alan Quinlan] and goes clear. ‘Ah for feck sake.’

“But now there isn’t even a point. What’s the point in trying to pick out Nalaga when you could be saying Nakaitaci? What’s the point in saying Fofana when it could be Rougerie or Abendanon? They have that good a squad. But what we try and do is focus on what we do well, and when Munster play well, they are suffocating.”

Smothering action

Flannery used to love it when Mervyn Murphy, the Irish team’s video analyst, would highlight an opposition player. “Merv would say ‘This guy is a quality player’ but look what happens when you do this?’ And you get a sense of excitement.

“Now I’m getting that as a coach,” says Flannery. “I met some of the lads for breakfast the other day and they asked me how we [the coaches] got on the previous day. We’d had meetings in Cork and I said: ‘We just went through Clermont and we saw some good stuff.’ It really gets you excited. I can’t do it anymore but I feel this is our job as coaches, and the lads go, ‘yes, we can do this’.”

It sounds as if Flannery has quickly tapped into this more vicarious take on playing. “I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy coaching as much as playing, because no matter how much I want to win the game I can’t go out and tackle, I can’t do anything. But I’m completely fine with not playing.

“I’m only in the door and I’m lucky that I trust the guys around me so much because I know them so well.”

Foley was a one-man force of nature on the St Munchin’s team that reached the Munster Schools Cup final in 1992, when Flannery was starting out in secondary school there, and Flannery talks of Foley’s conviction, how well he relates to people and how clever he is.

Comparing this with Leo Cullen’s elevation at Leinster, someone he also holds in high esteem, Flannery says: “There should never be jobs for the lads. That’s bullshit. But it does strengthen the identity of a province. Axel is the head man now, and sometimes I’m amazed how he and other coaches anticipate something happening weeks in advance. I suppose that’s experience and the intangibles of coaching.”

Majority shareholder

And now he’s back in the results game.

“The difference was that if Arsenal won at the weekend, my parents and family and friends weren’t buzzed up, whereas when we win with Munster, it’s like when I was playing.”

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