Flannery backing new generation of stars to drive Munster to glory
TWELVE months ago, Munster's January blues manifested themselves in a Heineken Cup pool exit for the first time in 13 seasons.
The response to that setback has been intense and, when Munster resume their European endeavours against Castres in Limerick on Saturday, they will do so from a position of considerable strength.
Their four victories from four outings have been more dogged than spectacular, but they've also been hugely significant psychologically -- particularly in light of persistent injury problems -- while the Pro12 bonus-point win over Treviso last Saturday gives Tony McGahan's side momentum heading into their final two pool matches.
Jerry Flannery, who has been forced to watch his province's progress from the sidelines as he continues his recovery from the calf injury that forced him out of the World Cup, believes the fact that Munster are not being talked up is working in their favour.
"No one is going, 'Munster have this thing wrapped up', even with four wins from four," said the hooker. "People are saying, 'Munster have had a good start but we are still not sure about them', which is a good place for us.
"I look back on past seasons, particularly when we won it in 2006 and '08, and it was never a case of it being there for us to lose.
"We take some criticism every year and most of the time it is deserved, but we just have to look at the bigger picture. It has been a fantastic start and there are so many younger, newer guys coming into the squad too.
"Getting those two tight results at the start made such a big difference for the young lads, and the difference that can have is huge.
"I look back at the Leinster team in '09 -- we played them twice that year and beat them in the Magners, and they pulled out an incredible performance in the Heineken Cup semi-final. Their players have kicked on so much from then."
Flannery is particularly encouraged by the development of the younger players under McGahan and expects big things in the coming years from the likes of Peter O'Mahony and Simon Zebo.
"When you're on the inside, you see these guys in training and you see how good they are and their work ethic," he said.
"Peter O'Mahony would have been my top tip of the lads coming through, based on talking to him and seeing how driven he is.
"He has kind of got an old head on young shoulders and he's very respectful. He has got strong ideas on the game, but he's always looking to learn because he wants to be better than (the older players) when he gets to their stage.
"Zebo is one of the most exciting fellas I've seen; he's very, very raw still but I like to focus on the positives and there is so much more to come out of him."
One of the major factors in Munster's steady progress this season has been the scrum platform anchored on the technique and power of tight-head BJ Botha.
Flannery is a long-standing admirer of the South African prop and believes Botha brings a great deal to the squad.
"I remember playing South Africa a couple of years ago and I found him a very, very good scrummager," he recalled.
"He was in my left ear all day trying to get on top of me and I just thought, 'this guy is dangerous', and I would have known his abilities from playing against him when he was with Ulster as well.
"The interesting thing is seeing these guys you really rate up close and BJ backs up his ability with hard work.
"BJ is incredibly professional, meticulous about the way he does things. It is very good to have guys who are at the very pinnacle of what they are doing, and have younger lads like Stephen Archer picking up things from them."
Developing youngsters is an issue Flannery feels strongly about, and he believes using ex-professionals to pass on their knowledge at underage level would produce players with a more diverse skill-set to help the provinces and national team down the line.
"Irish rugby is in a good place. We lost to Wales at the World Cup but I don't think anyone could have done any more out in New Zealand; I couldn't fault our preparation," said Flannery.
"But one thing I do think is that we have to get more guys who are ex-professionals and filter them back in, from underage up.
"If you have got fellas who understand rugby coaching kids, it will stand to them.
"We probably played a little bit one-dimensionally in that match and Wales had us figured out, but if you start with players that age and work through, by the time they get to a World Cup they have so many more options.
"We get guys out of school and work on them professionally, we do as much as we can, but by that stage they could be further ahead if the right work was done.
"When players make it to international level, you want them to have a really diverse set of skills -- that gives you so many more game-plan options. That is where I see it going."
That is the broader picture, but this week's narrow focus is on Castres, a team that holds fond memories for Flannery, who scored a try against the French side in his first Heineken Cup start in 2005/06.
Castres go into the encounter on the back of a 38-21, six-try loss to Stade Francais, and Munster will start as favourites at home, but Flannery believes the harsh lessons that were learnt last season have banished any sense of complacency in the Munster squad.
"It's been really good so far," said Flannery. "People talk about scraping through a couple of games, but you generally get out of a game what you put into it and ultimately get what you deserve.
"Whereas last year, these might have been games that we would have lost, this time we are on the far side of those results.
"To a degree, we are still under the radar and it is good for us, it keeps everyone humble, keeps everyone grounded and focused on the task in hand."