It’s a day that will live long in the memory of many Irish rugby fans but for the two-time Heineken Cup and Grand Slam winner Jerry Flannery it’s a day he’d rather forget, the day that last marked the changing of the guard in Irish rugby.
May 2nd 2009, in front of a world record crowd at Croke Park Leinster out-thought and out-fought the previously dominant Munster in a 25-6 semi-final mauling that still lingers like a bad smell around Thomond Park – a defeat that saw them become the number two side in Ireland.
With that day in mind, Flannery knows all too well that Sunday’s Heineken Cup quarter-final clash presents a real opportunity for Ulster to overtake Munster as Ireland’s second best.
“They’ll be looking, much like Leinster had against us in 2009, for that win that can kick you on and suddenly people start believing what they are doing,” says recently retired Munster and Ireland hooker speaking to SportsNewsIreland in his new role as Guinness ambassador.
“I think Munster will be favourites, particularly because we are at home but Ulster have the wherewithal to come down and win. I’ve been played against Ulster in Thomond Park before and lost.”
“The fact that their stock has been on the rise all the way means that there’s momentum in the province.”
It’s a different story for Munster though and there’s a growing sense of unease about the team’s European credentials, a sense that the old drive, epitomised by Flannery at his peak, isn’t quite there anymore.
After watching last weekend’s Celtic League defeat to Leinster Flannery himself wonders if complacency has crept into the squad more easily than before.
“We’d won six on the trot in Europe and everything was rosy going from game five with people saying ‘Munster aren’t playing well’ to game six where it’s
‘Munster could possibly be favourites.’
“People get a nice touch about themselves, and it’s like, ‘well you’ve just lost there and your chances in the Celtic League have dropped dramatically and if you lose next week your season’s over’ so no matter how well you think you’re doing you’re only this far from being out of everything.”
The build-up has been less than ideal but for Flannery the defeat to Leinster may not have been the worst thing to happen to a side getting a little soft on themselves.
“Sometimes when you lose like that it can give you a little bit of taste and a snap into reality,” he says and in Tony McGahan he feels they have a coach worthy of bringing the Heineken Cup back to Thomond Park.
“He’s put the club in a really, really strong place and I think he’s one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever seen in anything, I could just say rugby but that doesn’t do him justice.
“I’ve never seen a man work so hard.
“I don’t like to say people deserve to win because they work really hard because you don’t deserve anything but I would love to see Tony finish the season with something he’s been looking to win for a long time.”
Heineken Cup or not, McGahan is on the way out this summer to become Australia’s defensive coach, and for Flannery there is only one man to replace him.
“With regard to coaches coming in, I would have played with Axel (Anthony Foley) and he’s always been up there for me because he was captain of the school when I came into first year (St. Munchin’s College, Limerick), then he was captain of Shannon and captain of Munster, captained Ireland as well and now he’s coaching at Munster.
“I’d love to see him make the step up because I don’t know these other lads and I know the measure of that man.”
There has been some suggestion that though he has the makings of a future head of coaching, after only three years in his current role as forwards coach the job has come too soon for Foley.
“What’s he going to do in the meantime except be older?”, balks Flannery at that line of thinking.
“Tony (McGahan) was a lot younger as well. I’ve never been a coach so I don’t know what’s required to be a top, top coach but what I’ve noticed from my own experience with dealing with him is a really good work ethic.
“It obviously helps to be a very good intuitive thinker on the game, which Axel is, but the main thing is you’ve got to put the work in and then have the people skills to be able to communicate.
“I think Axel ticks those boxes.”
“If you give the job to someone else for two years in the meantime and he goes and wins two Heineken cups, I supposed you’re quids in there,” Flannery says wryly, “but what do you do with this fella you’ve been grooming?
“He’s either ready for the job or he’s not,” he says before warning that Foley may not be willing to wait.
“He’ll probably have to go away someplace else to get the head role if he’s not getting it here. Otherwise he’s always going to be in an assistant coach job.”
Whoever takes over next year, this Sunday could well determine whether they’re taking over at Ireland’s second or third strongest province.