Underdog spirit on a hard road
Flannery admits inferiority complex drives his quest to achieve every possible career goal
"Life is no brief candle for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations." George Bernard Shaw
JERRY FLANNERY has never met Bill Romanowski. But he knows him well. Some bits he doesn't like. The spitting. The punching. The pill-popping. The BALCO stuff. Other stuff he likes.
Before he ever earned the moniker 'Romocop', Romanowski started off his American Football career by being offered on the third draft, an 80th pick. He'd had a good college career, brains to burn too.
But nothing in his entry to the pro game signposted what was to come. He played a record 243 consecutive games, an NFL record among linebackers, won four Superbowls, was the only linebacker to start five and he was twice a Pro Bowl selection.
In rugby terms, think of an erstwhile second-choice hooker at Connacht becoming a Grand Slam winner. Bill Romanowski has never met Jerry Flannery. But he would know him when he saw him.
"I've always felt I have to work a bit harder than everyone else to get to where I want to be." As he says this, Flannery's biceps and chest muscles are positively bulging through a Guinness rugby jersey yet, even with 31 years, 36 caps, a Grand Slam and two Heineken Cups, insecurity dogs him.
There's more to this guy than people think.
"I always think when I'm training that someone is doing more than me. It's like growing up, there's always guys naturally bigger than you on the team. They coast. But I never had that. It wasn't that I was deficient; I just felt I had to do more. I still err on the side of doing too much.
"You could say it's a little bit of an inferiority complex. I've read Romanowski's book. Straight up, he's not a nice fellah. But he had 16 years in the NFL. The average is, like, three and a half.
"But every single year, he was haunted by the feeling that he was going to be cut. The fear of not being as good as he could be drove him to train and train. He's picked for the Pro Bowl and he's wondering whether he'll be cut.
"Michael Jordan was like that, too. I like to train though. When I finish, I'd like to stay active. I don't want to have a dodgy ankle or a knackered knee. Although the chances are pretty high!"
EVERYONE has someone they remember from school or college or work or life who represented a crucial signpost to their existence. For Flannery, it was a South African hooker nobody -- except those within rugby's close-knit community -- remembers. Marnus Uijs.
"You remember him? That's good homework," smiles Flannery as he recalls the time he spent contemplating Robert Frost's two divergent paths. September '02. The week of a Connacht v Leinster match. Uijs picking up an injury. Flannery getting the call. Donnybrook. Big time calling.
"For my career, that was a really important day. That was getting on the rung. I told Paulie (O'Connell) about this last weekend. 'People don't know but that was the day for me', I said to him.
"A lot of pressure on me. Right, here's your chance. Take it or ... I don't know if it was the door. But I was blinkered that week. Knew it was a huge opportunity. We all switched on for that game.
"When opportunity knocks, you have to be standing at the door waiting. And the minute it opens, just a little, you have to shoot through. You need to have everything done on your side and be ready to take advantage of the luck."
A move to Munster beckoned, a shift up the gears there benefiting from injury to Frankie Sheahan propelling him, belatedly, into the big time. He was 27 when he won his first Irish cap (Romania, 2005).
He had been mapped though, via schools. "I didn't just walk in off a building site and learn how to throw the ball in," he says in a deadpan manner. It was just harder to break through a decade ago.
A late flourisher then, Flannery has since had too many lengthy longueurs away from the game, induced either by injury or suspension, in which to ponder his journey. Twice he has endured lengthy suspensions -- he is currently sidelined for the remainder of the Six Nations thanks to that lunge on French winger Alexis Palisson.
Injuries have steered him off the rails, too, stuttering his early breakthrough and then destroying his Lions dream last summer. And, when he pushes to get back, he characteristically pushes too far and usually tears a calf or pulls a muscle.
"I was down with the Munster lads today running around the field, you really miss being with the lads, whereas most of the season I've been on my own or in the gym," he says, referring to his current enforced break from the game.
"Listen, I was given a fair hearing. I got a lot of clarification. I can move on and look forward to the Leinster game now.
"We didn't use the concussed line, that just got picked up. It was just when I looked at the video, I'd landed on my head with my legs folded and my neck compressed.
"When I got up, I didn't realise which way I was playing or what was going on. But I never used it as an excuse. I rang Palisson and texted him. Said I as really sorry. 'You don't deserve to miss matches, I deserve punishment,' I said. I take it on the chin now."
The ban for stamping on Julien Bonnaire two seasons ago bugged him, though.
He was effectively labelled a liar at the hearing.
Cue wild-haired Irishman approaching Bonnaire in Paris last month. "I just wanted to clear my side of things with him," he says.
The Lions shoulder injury was cruel, suffered in a training drill prior to departure. Donncha O'Callaghan recalls Flannery saying that at least he could get a proper pre-season done. Flannery admits the private grief contrasted sharply.
"Rugby is a selfish game, when you get an injury, you feel sorry for yourself. People get injured every single week. People get dropped every week. An injury is going to happen.
"With a big one, you're obviously gutted. There's two days of 'what's going to happen?' But the minute I got the operation, I knew every day I was getting better. The quicker you get to that stage, the better. So you think of pre-season.
"I probably over-trained which is probably why I got so many stupid injuries this season. That won't happen again."
That impatience constantly tugs. "I want to win everything that's going. I'm greedy. I want to finish knowing I'd nothing left to give. I remember (Declan) Kidney telling us years ago, I was just out of school, that every game was a review of where you are.
"I've had to come back from injury with Shannon and each time fellahs are looking at you, wondering, 'Is this fellah any good, really?' And then you play an international the next week, and they ask the same question."
It's why he loves films so much. The performance. He receives a recommendation to watch 'Rumblefish' but refuses the offer to read one of Peter Biskind's lengthy tomes on the business. He has time on his hands but not that much.
"I love the stories about Dennis Hopper. You see them in a movie and you think you have an idea where they are. And then you see the journey of how they got to there. And all the s*** they went through. F***ing hell, man."
A journey not entirely unlike his own. An independent spirit, it's no coincidence that he's a fan of the Coen brothers, a devotee of 'The Big Lebowski'. You ask him what role he would have liked to play.
He pauses for the longest time in the whole hour. "I've no idea," he says. Perhaps he hasn't found one yet. Or maybe he just doesn't want to be typecast.
"I guess that's the way the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin' itself."
The Stranger in 'The Big Lebowski', Ethan & Joel Coen