Disappointing news yesterday as Jerry Flannery announced his inevitable retirement from rugby. The Connacht, Munster, Ireland and almost-Lions hooker was a truly world-class player at his peak. Two Heineken Cups with Munster as well as two Triple Crowns and a Grand Slam with Ireland says it all. Unfortunately, injuries have ended his career prematurely and it’s a crushing shame that we won’t see him in a Munster jersey again.
Limerick through-and-through, the St. Munchin’s man began his professional career with Connacht, intelligently recognising that he would get more exposure to first-team action in the West. After two seasons of building his reputation, Flannery returned to his native Munster at the beginning of the 2003/04 season. He had to bide his time until ’05/06, when he finally became Munster’s definitive first-choice hooker.
Frankie Sheahan started the opening Heineken Cup game that season but a neck injury during the 27-13 loss to Sale Sharks saw Declan Kidney bring Flannery in at hooker for the next game at home to Castres. He excelled during the remaining victorious 8 games as Munster finally ended their long wait for the Holy Grail, scoring two tries along the way. Again in ’07/08, Flannery started every single game as Munster won another Heineken Cup.
His breakthrough at provincial level resulted in an international debut the same season. On the 26th of November 2005, Flannery replaced Shane Byrne during Ireland’s 43-12 win over Romania. By the time of the 2006 Six Nations, the Munster man was first-choice, helping Ireland to a Triple Crown, which included a dramatic late win over England. The 2007 World Cup was infamously poor for Ireland, although Flannery showed up well, starting against France and Argentina as well as scoring off the bench against Namibia.
A harsh ban in the build-up to the 2008 campaign meant Flannery missed out but he returned in 2009 to great effect. The powerful hooker won the battle with Rory Best for the number 2 jersey and his displays as Ireland won a Grand Slam were superb. Here, he was at his peak. His lineout throwing was flawless, his ball-carrying dynamic and his defence big-hitting. With a frame like a bodybuilder, Flannery was a vital player for Ireland.
Flannery was a guaranteed Lion in 2009 and sure enough, the call-up came. He would have been one of few definite starters in the Test team, but a cruelly-timed elbow injury ruled him out. Flannery managed to get himself fit for the 2010 Six Nations, reclaiming his place for the first two games against Italy and France. However, a moment of madness in Paris resulted in the ban which ended his tournament.
Injuries started to come thick and fast for the Irish No.2 and severely limited the amount of rugby he was available for. In ’09/10 he made 6 appearances for Munster, while in ’10/11 he could only manage 2 off the bench. A true measure of the player is that Declan Kidney still brought him to the 2011 RWC, hoping that Flannery could stay fit. He got through the warm-up games and appeared off the bench against the United States. However, a long-standing calf injury flared up again and Flannery made an emotional exit.
Returning to Munster, the calf injury eventually healed, but then a back problem surfaced and that has ultimately led to Flannery’s decision. Every Munster and Ireland fan has been willing his full recovery, hoping to see him once again pull on that red jersey that clearly meant so much to him. Alas, it’s not to be.
Instead, let’s celebrate the brilliant career of this Munster and Ireland legend. A superbly talented, hard-working player who took shit from no one. With some of the finest darts around, explosive ball-carrying and memorably big hits, he was the complete hooker and a world-class player. Flannery is well thought of everywhere he has been. He is known as a character and an inspiration. He will carry the best wishes of players and fans alike with whatever he takes on next.
*Feel free to comment below with your favourite memories of Flannery. How much did Ireland and Munster miss out on due to his injury battle? Could he have been a great Irish Lion?