Leinster are Ireland's No 1 side, admits Flannery
"Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!" -- Al Pacino, Godfather III. As a keen movie buff, Jerry Flannery would appreciate the sentiment.
He's retired a week now but he can't possibly cut the umbilical cord with his beloved Munster. It's just not that surgically neat a process.
Take last week, for example. He's still studying in UL, the Munster team base, so contact is necessarily unavoidable. As he discovered to his cost.
"My lifestyle now is I get up early about 6.30 and I go in and train before college," he explains, just a week after the bell officially tolled on the two-time Heineken Cup winner's career.
"If I go up for food, I'll meet the lads. I know I said a lot of stuff about not being one of those sad players hanging around, but I had to get something yesterday and I went into the office.
"I walked in and Anthony Foley just saw me and said 'I thought you weren't going to be one of those sad players'. Next thing Paul O'Connell was there 'ah, here he is' and I just ran out of there with my tail between my legs.
"I kind of copped it then. It's hard to completely let go. I'm very happy with the lot I've had playing rugby, but now I've got to move on rather than be hanging on a little bit. But I ended up just making life really hard for myself."
Other complicated notions have occupied his swirling thoughts during this past week. Principally, a nagging idea that, despite his memories of Munster's two Heineken Cup-winning campaigns, the 2009 outfit that soared to clip the Ospreys in a remarkable quarter-final defeat could have exceeded their illustrious predecessors.
"I look at that 2009 team and I thought that was a really, really good side. That was a team that could have done really big things. We could have won the double that year.
"But Leinster turned us over in Croker and you look back on it now, the '06 and '08 teams were really fantastic teams because they won things. It all comes down to winning. If you don't win, you're not at the races."
Ultimately, Munster did win the league that season, and repeated the feat again last season, despite failing to emerge from their Heineken Cup qualification pool for the first time this century.
Flannery argues, however, that the '09 vintage should have kicked on to copperfasten their status as European kingpins, instead of slipping down to third in the European rankings and, most pointedly, to second in the All-Ireland list.
"That's the thing that I play around with in my head. We were in line for the Heineken Cup and the league double, and I thought we could kick on from there.
"The age profile was good. But we fell off an awful lot the following year and we didn't win anything in Europe.
"It comes down to each day, each moment. We beat Leinster twice that year in the league but when it came to Croker, they turned us over when it mattered."
Munster have failed to arrest the slide since and Flannery remains at a loss to adjudge just why that was the case.
"I don't know. We didn't lose a lot of players. The two sides' fortunes flipped. We never kicked on from that semi-final. That hurt a lot and, for the Leinster lads who had lost two games against us, that kind of win spurred such belief and they just kicked on massively since then.
"If you were picking a No 1 team in Ireland at the moment, you would have to say Leinster."
Critics would argue that Munster failed to integrate their new blood as swiftly as Leinster, although it's an argument Flannery rejects.
"If you are going from the '09 season to 2010 ... these guys like (Peter) O'Mahony, (Simon) Zebo, (Mike) Sherry, (Ian) Nagle, (Dave) Foley, these are all good players but they weren't so much on the radar back then and I was there training with them the whole time.
"I wasn't saying to myself, 'we have some cracking young players coming through.' Maybe a coach can see something I can't see, but I am training with them, I have eyes on them all the time so I don't know how you get that cycle right in a squad.
"Say, from Ian Nagle's point of view. He is a really class player, but he has a ton of class second-rows in front of him. It's not like he is being held back and Neil Francis is stuck in the second-row ahead of him, and people are asking 'when are you going to get this veteran out?'.
"If I was Paul O'Connell, Donnacha Ryan, Mick O'Driscoll or Donncha O'Callaghan and I suddenly got dropped for Ian Nagle, I would find that pretty hard."
The fear that Ulster could do to Munster what Leinster did in that '09 season infuses this week's build-up.
"Munster have to keep things on an even keel," he says. "Judge us in May. That's when you know if you're successful or not."
IRFU pay strategy
"If a player keeps performing, his contract should keep improving. But when he gets to a certain age, because of the tax-back money, it makes sense for the Union to try to cut their wages because they're getting older. And they'll say, 'this guy probably wants to stay in Ireland, so we can factor that into his salary and take it down a little bit,' knowing that he doesn't want to go to France because his nest egg may be jeopardised. The Union are doing their job to try to keep wages down. It's like anything, it's not just rugby."
Anthony Foley getting Munster job
"He's either ready for the job or he's not. I don't know whether there are skills he has to develop. He hasn't had the head role here so maybe that would be an eye-opener if he steps into it. But that would mean him going away somewhere else to get the head role, otherwise he's always going to be in an assistant coach role. And what if they give the job away, a guy wins two Heineken Cups -- quids in and all that! -- but what do you do then with this other fella you've been grooming?"
"Ulster can definitely win. They have the wherewithal to come down and win. I've played against Ulster in Thomond Park before and lost. It is not like a freak that they have managed to get here. They have been generally improving over the last couple of years. They'll be looking, much like Leinster had against us in 2009, for that win that can kick you on and suddenly people start really believing what they are doing."