Joker in pack can pump up Lions' faltering heartbeat

Limerick lad Jerry Flannery says Irish must forge tour spirit but Tomas O'Leary is an early casualty
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The Independent Online

It did not take long, just over 78 hours in fact, for the Munster heartbeat of the forthcoming Lions tour to suffer an arresting shock. Tomas O'Leary broke his ankle on Friday night, playing for the province who had dominated Ian McGeechan's squad announcement, and the irony was that the scrum-half sustained the horrific injury in a collision with a team-mate and fellow Lion, David Wallace.

Munster teamwork was a major plank of McGeechan's planning when he revealed on Tuesday that eight of his 37 tourists would be from the European champions, and it was teamwork which smashed poor O'Leary out of the trip. On Wednesday in training at the University of Limerick, the Munster players had chaired the 21-year-old back Keith Earls on to the field and then jokingly ignored another of the more surprising choices to tour, Alan Quinlan. "When Quinny came out no one said anything," said Jerry Flannery, the hooker also among Munster's amazing eight. "Then eventually we all jumped on him and pulled his shorts off."

On Friday, when Munster defeated the Scarlets in Cork to move closer to securing the Magners League title, it was all the other way around. Defending a scrum just outside the 22, Wallace, the flanker, went to tackle the Scarlets wing Mark Jones and O'Leary, who was shadowing the Scarlets' centres, turned back inside to assist his pal. As Wallace and O'Leary collided, the one's right leg jammed the other's left leg into the turf and the ankle joint appeared to dislocate immediately, with O'Leary letting out a shout of pain which was audible on TV coverage. Danny Cipriani and Lawrence Dallaglio would sympathise, each having suffered the same injury in recent seasons.

While O'Leary went to hospital, the Lions' stand-by scrum-halves – thought to include Scotland's Chris Cusiter and Mike Blair, England's Danny Care and Dwayne Peel of Wales – went on red-jersey alert. "Everyone's very disappointed as Tomas is massive for us – and personally for him also," said Flannery, whose side have a Heineken Cup semi-final against Leinster at Croke Park on Saturday with a place at Murrayfield on 23 May (the day before the Lions depart) at stake.

It will test the famous Munster phlegmatism – teak-tough and clever on the pitch and keeping the mickey-taking for the right moment – typified by Flannery earlier in the week. Half an hour before the Lions squad was broadcast from London, he was in his family's bar in the centre of Limerick, poring over some building plans. "Yer man the architect was saying, 'Have you not got an interest in this?'" Flannery recalled, "and I said, 'Yeah, I do,' but I didn't want everyone to see me glued to the screen. My dad turned up the sound and was setting up bottles of champagne, and a lot of my old rugby coaches were there. And I thought, 'Oh shit, this could go horribly wrong,' and if my name wasn't called out they'd see my face drop and maybe I'd walk out the pub. Thank God my name got read out."

McGeechan also plumped for Earls, Ronan O'Gara and O'Leary in the backs and Paul O'Connell (the captain), Quinlan, Donncha O'Callaghan and Wallace up front. It might help avoid the calamitous line-outs of the first Lions Test in New Zealand in 2005, when O'Connell, Shane Byrne of Leinster and Leicester's Ben Kay read from three different scripts and the All Blacks fell about laughing. "It's put a big bullseye on Munster, but from a selfish point of view it will be a bit of a safety blanket for me," said Flannery.

And he backs his friend and fellow Limerick lad O'Connell to get all the jobs done. Flannery is a year older almost to the day; the hooker 30, the lock 29. "I was at St Munchin's school when he played for our rivals, Ard Scoil Ris. They pulled out this tall ginger fella and I didn't think much of him. He was getting back into rugby after concentrating on swimming and golf. But whatever he did in weight training the following summer he came back a monster. Each year was the same, Paul kept applying himself and just kept going up and up. Whether it's in his diet, his preparation, at training – he sets a really high benchmark. You get some lads who are just magicians with the ball and sometimes it's harder to relate to them. Whereas with Paul it's just been sheer brutal hard work and any player can relate to that."

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