Flannery's volcano ready to rain fire in battle with England

Ireland's no-nonsense hooker grabbed his chance late in his career and has not looked back. He talks to David Kelly
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Two years ago, when Girvan Demspey scored a famous game-breaking try against England in Twickenham, Jerry Flannery sprung from a bar stool at his father's pub on Catherine Street, in Limerick and punched the air with joy. Around him, others erupted in an equally volcanic expression of delight.

Victories against England are always sweet, but this one represented something more tangible than a mere chance to blast out a few songs and sneer at the humiliation of the world champions. Dempsey's stunningly well-worked 53rd-minute try proved to be the foundation of a first Triple Crown triumph in 19 years for Eddie O'Sullivan's Irish side. It provided evidence that Ireland were going places.

But Flannery had absolutely nothing to do with it. He was still drumming the positive words into his mind at the start of every season. "This is your year, this is your year." But in 2003-04, he was not in Ireland's plans and only a peripheral figure in the famed Munster forward retinue. During the following season the story remained the same, only a substitute appearance in the Heineken Cup representing any tangible reward.

This time around it has been different. At 27 Flannery will make only his fifth start for Ireland, representing a whirlwind promotion for someone who was playing AIB League rugby for Shannon six months ago. The fact that the word "only" is in the preceding sentence illustrates Flannery's impact this season.

"It was very frustrating to be on the bench for Munster for so long," he says. "You know the only chance you have of getting near the international set-up is if you're in the Munster team.

"And you can't get a chance to show what you can do because you're not getting any games. So you might only get one chance to prove yourself and you've just got to take it when that happens."

That chance came for Munster in the Heineken Cup game against Castres, one of those elemental nights at Thomond Park in which Flannery made an 80-minute impact worthy of any red-shirted legend.

Flannery's grim determination to succeed ensured he that would not be sated merely by establishing himself in the Munster side. The modern international game of rugby should not cater for the script which has plotted the belated arrival of this 27-year-old on to the international stage. But this is not merely a sentimental tale. For he has slotted into the scene with almost blithe ease.

"It's been easier stepping up with a lot of my colleagues from the Munster pack also involved," he explains. "It's not like it's another level at all. It's very unfortunate that Frankie [Sheahan] got injured because I'd still be on the Munster bench otherwise."

Flannery's burgeoning self-confidence is evident and this week is no different. Was it tough to adapt in his first Six Nations match against Italy, as Ireland stuttered, and their first two attacking line-outs went awry? Flannery answers assertively. "The first one they picked out, but it was a good throw," he replies. "OK, the second was a bit overcooked but any line-out in the world is going to break down at one stage or another."

Even though these shards of doubt flicked into view during his opening minutes of championship rugby, a period he had dreamed about, he still managed to retain his unerring focus. He has not looked back since. Much was made of Ireland's ability to snaffle eight Scottish line-outs last Saturday, yet to secure 21 of your own throws without fail, and ensure that each ball is presented cleanly, is impressive.

Ireland's ability to thwart the English set-piece two years ago backboned the 19-13 win that day. With Lee Mears and Simon Shaw part of the manifold changes made by Andy Robinson following England's French implosion, Flannery believes that this area will be crucial.

"It shows the strength in depth within English rugby that they can bring a guy like Simon Shaw into the equation," he says. "Lee Mears is an accurate thrower too, a serious ball-carrier.

"The set-piece is a massive part of the game. We went well at line-out time against Scotland but there is no guarantee of a repeat. England have the best in the competition, though. They've taken 30 per cent of their opponents' throws, up to 90 per cent on their own. We'll have our work cut out."

Flannery's no-nonsense playing style is reflected in his confident assertions off the field. Understandably, there are nervous twitchings among the Irish management as Flannery once more faces the press. This is not a week for words to dwarf actions.

Flannery is asked - somewhat provocatively perhaps - about the triumphant photos lining the Twickenham corridor. "Ah sure, we have flags in Thomond Park. It's all about making players feel at home. It's not arrogance."

He does get piqued, however, when his playing style is assessed. Flannery is a veritable action man last seen aquaplaning down the right wing against Scotland, for example. Some people can get away with not being so good in the tight, it is suggested playfully. "I am good in the tight," he says, burning the questioner with a piercing glare. "You wouldn't get away with it at this level. That's a bit old school, that way of thinking."

Flannery does not mind seeking advice from his betters, though. Last season, as he continued to flounder in oblivion, he rang a certain Keith Wood.

"We just went and threw a few darts, nothing major, a bit of advice," he says quietly. "It was a frustrating time."

This Saturday, though, Flannery will not be sitting on his father's bar stool. He will be at Twickenham, potentially as part of a Triple Crown winning side. More importantly, he will never have to sit on any bar stool and reflect on the fact that he could have been a contender. Now he is much more than that.

Flannery has only been to Twickenham once before, when Munster played Harlequins in the Heineken Cup last year. "I was on the bench," he says dolefully. "It's a nice place." Not the bench, surely? "No, no. The bench sucks."