WHEN Jerry Flannery finally succumbed to his chronic calf injury and announced his retirement from professional rugby, he left a crater-sized void in the Munster set-up.
As a hooker, Flannery was near enough to perfect as made no difference. In the loose, he had Fred Astaire's dancing feet; in the tight, he scrummaged like an extra prop and, when it came to the line-out, it's difficult to remember many – if any – stray darts.
Since his retirement in March of this year, Mike Sherry and Damien Varley have been auditioning for the role on a more permanent basis. The problem is that neither is as complete as Flannery.
Varley is perceived to be stronger in the scrum, Sherry more dynamic in open play. Varley is a physically stronger specimen, Sherry more fleet of foot.
The line-out – and both have a perceived inconsistency in this area – has been an issue both last season and this, although they are being harshly compared with a hooker who was unerring out of touch.
Flannery's excellence, and the burden created by his absence, was highlighted recently by former Munster forwards' coach Laurie Fisher. The current Brumbies (Super 15) supremo described Flannery as "the heart and soul of the Munster line-out.
"Jerry being injured for long periods was a huge problem for us. And when you add the fact that Paul O'Connell played bugger-all rugby during that time, too, that explains some of the problems with the line-out," added Fisher.
"Hookers of Jerry's ability are hard to find and having to do without him was even harder."
Both current hookers have started a game apiece in Munster's Heineken Cup campaign. Varley was in for the game against Racing Metro and Sherry was handed the jersey for the home contest with Edinburgh.
Sherry gets the nod tomorrow and a strong showing out of touch against Saracens would go a long way to making a more permanent claim on the hooker's shirt.
It will help that Munster, even allowing for the absence of O'Connell, are almost tripping over themselves with line-out options. Donnacha Ryan will be the primary jumper with Donnacha O'Callaghan available in the two position.
An added bonus is that all three back-rows are options.
Dave O'Callaghan's 6ft 5ins frame was one of the reasons he beat off competition for the blindside role – that and the current injury crisis they are experiencing.
Steve Borthwick and Mouritz Botha are top-class jumpers and the Saracens line-out is one of their strengths. Munster's capacity to vary their tactics with, so many options available, is an encouragement. Indeed, it will be key to their chances of success.
Sherry acknowledged this week the strength of Saracens' line-out.
"They've the best line-out in the competition so far," he stated.
"I think they've taken 23 out of 23 line-outs, which is impressive. That was a big area we looked at. But they're also strong all over the field.
"They've huge options in their scrum – about three or four deep in each position – and their backs are obviously dangerous. They've Ashton and Farrell, who're coming off of a great win against the All Blacks, so we've got to be conscious of that as well."
The way Munster are playing this season, Sherry is as likely to find himself out in the wide channels as he is closer to the action. Against Glasgow last weekend, for example, he found himself on the wing watching as a crossfield kick from O'Gara spiralled in his direction.
"That was new to me! But it's great. As well as running off the nine and the 10 you're in the wide channels as well, which is brilliant. You've got a lot of space to run in and get your hands going.
"I haven't spent too much time out on the wing before and, you know, sometimes you think you're not working, which was a big concern of mine at the start of the year.
"Munster's game is obviously based on a huge work rate and that was one of the points I made to Rob (Penney), that sometimes I was kind of panicking if I hadn't hit a ruck in about four or five phases, but he just said 'bide your time, the ball will come to you.'
"And sometimes you can work back in or fellas can go out wide and we've interlinked a bit more. We're not as rigid as we were at the start of the year."
The pressure on all the Irish provinces this weekend is enormous. Ulster are best placed as they top their pool, but face a difficult trip to Northampton tonight.
Leinster, Connacht and Munster must all win. Munster's loss in France in the opening round has all but eliminated any margin for error they might have had.
"We didn't get a win in our first game against Racing, so we were on the back foot from the get-go.
"But, no matter if we'd lost our first three or four games, any game at Thomond Park in the Heineken Cup, we're not going to lie down and not go for the victory.
"You've two teams coming off the back off good results. The English internationals in Saracens side and the Irish ones in ours are also full of confidence after their results, so I think it's going to be very evenly matched," added Sherry.