Long wait pays for impatient Flannery

Hooker steps up from understudy to take on the leading role as if born to the big-time
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A Guinness advertising line used to proclaim "good things come to those who wait" and Jerry Flannery is living proof. It has been a fair while since he was a teenager pulling pints of the black stuff in his father's pub: his first start for Ireland against Italy in the opening match of this year's Six Nations' Championship came at the ripe old age of 27.

"I'd always backed myself and was confident that I'd be good enough," said Flannery, "but the waiting game is very tough." So tough, in fact, that if the Munster hooker had failed to make a breakthrough this season - his third representing his home province - he would have given serious thought to playing elsewhere or even giving up all together. "I remember Declan Kidney [the Munster coach] telling us earlier this season that we were in the prime of our careers," said Flannery. "And I was thinking, 'I'm in the prime of my career but for the third year in a row I'm sitting on the bench'. If you get in the Munster side you're bound to be very close to international selection, and it comes down to having the patience to stick it out.

"There's a lot of fellas in the same position as me in Ireland because there's only four teams. In the end I didn't have to make the decision because it just happened."

What "just happened" was that Munster's first-choice hooker, Frankie Sheahan, pranged some neck ligaments in his neck last October and Flannery, who had played two seasons at Connacht between 2001 and 2003 to get some games, went from shining pine to seizing his chance. "If I'm realistic I wouldn't be anywhere near where I am now if Frankie hadn't got injured," he said. But that does not diminish a series of rollocking personal and team performances - culminating in the famous Heineken Cup win over Sale in his home town of Limerick - which edged him ahead of Ulster's Rory Best and the more experienced Shane Byrne of Saracens as Ireland's number one No 2, as he is today agaist Wales at Lansdowne Road.

Forget the waiting game. Flannery - who was capped against Romania as a substitute in the autumn - is now a central plank of the Irish game plan. He has strong thoughts on it, too, but then so does every one from Eddie O'Sullivan, the coach, to the most teary-eyed stout drinker after the switchback defeat in France a fortnight ago. The Irish conceded six tries and trailed 43-3, then scored 28 unanswered points and almost snatched the craziest of victories.

"It was surreal," admitted Flannery. "We'd be up by their line and I thought 'if we keep putting this through the phases we'll be through' and the next moment we were back under our own posts. We were playing all the rugby and I was really enjoying it and then you look at the scoreboard and think 'oh, for fuck's sake'. That night it was hard to sleep, it was so frustrating.

"Looking at it positively, we've showed we can score a lot of tries, and we need to keep doing our basics, cut out the mistakes and play direct against Wales. We're trying to run around teams but there's still a place for forwards to be picking and going, and sucking opposing players in. Make half a break and an offload and then let the backs go. There's no point in playing sevens rugby off the cuff. I like taking on the opposition pack to get myself into the game. And that means carrying the ball and being aggressive and making those hard yards. Then the game will open up. Throwing long passes can make it messy. I prefer something a bit more structured."

It sounds like a song from the Munster hymnsheet and it remains O'Sullivan's ultimate responsibility to marry the best of that province's forwards - although lock Paul O'Connell is missing this afternoon with an injured shoulder - with the Leinster marauders Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy in the backs. Wales are likely to want "an open game", according to Flannery; all the more reason, he says, for Ireland to be "tighter and cuter" this time. His Six Nations line-out statistics of 37 safe takes from 42 throws are solid and encouraging to a team who have tended to score heavily off that particular set-piece.

Whatever happens, they will be shoulder to shoulder, as the Ireland anthem has it, to watch it on TV in Flannery's Bar in Catherine Street, Limerick. They got a bus up to see the Italy match in Dublin, and celebrated loud and long their favourite son's try from a line-out catch-and-drive. "It's not one of these trendy super-bars," said Flannery. "There's all the old rugby heads and when I worked in there when I was 15 or 16 I'd get untold amounts of advice on what I should be doing and what I was doing wrong." He has the build and the faint bags under the eyes of a bar-room brawler, but he was excused by his father, Jerry senior, to attend University College Cork, where he got a degree in economics, minoring in geography.

As the pen-pictures in the Stade de France programme put it: "He is new, but not so young". To add finally a set of senior jerseys to the one he exchanged with Duncan Jones, today's opposing tighthead prop, after an Ireland-Wales schools match is an end in itself, but it will mean little to Jerry Flannery unless there is another win or two along the way.

LANSDOWNE ROAD LINE-UPS

Ireland

15 G Murphy (Leicester)

14 S Horgan (Leinster)

13 B O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt)

12 G D'Arcy (Leinster)

11 A Trimble (Ulster)

10 R O'Gara (Munster)

9 P Stringer (Munster)

1 M Horan (Munster)

2 J Flannery (Munster)

3 J Hayes (Munster)

4 D O'Callaghan (Munster)

5 M O'Kelly (Leinster)

6 S Easterby (Llanelli Scarlets)

8 D Leamy (Munster)

7 D Wallace (Munster)

Replacements: 16 R Best (Ulster), 17 S Best (Ulster), 18 M O'Driscoll (Munster), 19 J O'Connor (Wasps), 20 E Reddan (Wasps), 21 D Humphreys (Ulster), 22 G Dempsey (Leinster).

Wales

15 L Byrne (Llanelli Scarlets)

14 M Jones (Llanelli Scarlets)

13 H Luscombe(Newport-Gwent Dragons)

12 M Watkins (Llanelli Scarlets)

11 D James (Llanelli Scarlets)

10 S Jones (Clermont-Auvergne)

9 D Peel (Llanelli Scarlets)

1 D Jones (Ospreys)

2 R Thomas (Cardiff Blues)

3 A Jones (Ospreys)

4 I Gough (Newport-Gwent Dragons)

5 R Sidoli (Cardiff Blues)

6 C Charvis (Newcastle)

8 M Owen (Newport-Gwent Dragons, capt)

7 M Williams (Cardiff Blues)

Replacements: 16 M Davies (Gloucester), 17 G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), 18 J Thomas (Ospreys), 19 G Delve (Bath), 20 M Phillips (Cardiff Blues), 21 G Henson (Ospreys), 22 B Davies (Llanelli Scarlets)

Referee: J Kaplan (South Africa)

Kick-off: 3pm. Live: BBC1

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