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David Kelly: Retiring Flannery is simply the best

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Jerry Flannery

Jerry Flannery

Jerry Flannery

Jerry Flannery won't care, now that his career has joined so many others in the history books, but the thought may offer him some solace.

His inevitable retirement after over two years of debilitating, destructive injury has denied Ireland the services of the country's best hooker of the professional era.

Better even than Keith Wood.

Wood may have captained his country and pursued a career that, in terms of Lions recognition and worldwide acclaim, garnered multiples of the profile accorded to his St Munchin's school successor.

But in terms of the most basic aspects of what the player with the No 2 on his back should be potent at -- Flannery's excellence marked him out as the best Irish hooker of his generation.

Sadly, his high points were too rare, indiscipline and injury thieving the 33-year-old of so much time in a career that, given it only peaked at the age of 27, always seemed as if it was being undertaken at breakneck speed.

That is how it looked on the field, a red-maned ball of energy destroying everything in its wake, displaying controlled -- and sometimes uncontrolled --aggression.

His long-term rival, Rory Best, has just surpassed Wood's international caps career total as a hooker with 58; Flannery's late development makes his total of 41 present itself as a significant figure.

And yet, had suspension not robbed him of two Six Nations campaigns and injury not denied him a multiple of caps, he could have acquired far more.

Some might label his an unfulfilled career. However, two Heineken Cup wins with Munster and a Grand Slam success with Ireland betray such an opinion.

Far more esteemed Irish players have achieved far less -- Wood, for one.

Always mapped at schools level, Flannery had to take a circuitous route towards provincial and international stardom.

Connacht was an important staging post in his career and a Donnybrook derby in the spring of 2002 would provide him with his opportunity to shine.

It was on that occasion against Leinster, after he had moved to Munster, that an injury to colleague, Frankie Sheahan, provided him with the breakthrough he craved.

Flourish

After joining Munster, his career began to flourish. In 2006, he was arguably the best line-out thrower in world rugby and his partnership with Munster totems Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan underpinned that season's Heineken Cup triumph.

Earning his debut in the autumn of 2005 for Ireland against Romania, he established himself as Eddie O'Sullivan's first-choice hooker in the subsequent Six Nations Championship as Shane Byrne's career wound down and Sheahan succumbed to injury.

A force of nature, opponents such as Jason White and Steve Thompson were but two players who felt the blunt end of his tongue, but his excellence from the throw never wavered.

A fine scrummager and a marauding presence in open play, Flannery also had an underrated ability in phased play -- his fine burst in the Heineken Cup semi-final against Biarritz could easily have swung that 2010 tie in his side's favour.

Too often, his manic aggression cost him dearly, whether the two lengthy Six Nations bans resulting from wild boots that struck Julien Bonnaire and Alexis Palisson or the training ground tackle that ended his 2009 Lions involvement before it began. In that same year he had been at the top of his game and rated among the world's best hookers as he helped Ireland deliver a set-piece driven Grand Slam success, his country's first since 1948.

In his youth, he had concentrated too much on broadening his impact on the game. As he matured, and as he focused on his strengths, this was when the sport revealed him at his most effective.

Consistently dogged by an inferiority complex that left him perceiving that other players were always training harder and improving more than he was, his was a career that so often seemed to be skating on the edge.

Whenever injury struck him down, an event that happened far too often for his liking in the latter days of his career, Flannery would selfishly mourn each setback, but immediately after the surgeon's knife was applied, would reset his focus on recuperation.

He recalls making one of many comebacks in a Shannon jersey and Declan Kidney's words that every time he pulled on a jersey was like taking a snapshot of his career, as if everyone was judging him anew.

Ultimately, there was just one injury too many for his body to cope with and it was becoming ever more difficult to reclaim the former glories of a career that only occasionally, if gloriously, reached its peaks.

Taking over his family pub business and pursuing post-graduate study options, not to mention a keen interest in amateur film-making, allowed him to always have one eye on a future that would one day preclude him from playing professional rugby.

His legacy will remain in his trophy cabinet and in the manner in which he fulfilled as much as he could with the talent that he worked so hard to maximise.

Irish Independent