‘The Pro14 hasn’t been competitive outside the Irish teams. It’s the worst I have seen it’

WHEN JERRY FLANNERY decided to get back into coaching after a year out of the game, taking charge of defence at a French club was chief among his thoughts.

The Limerick man had been forwards coach at Munster before leaving the province in 2019, but he has a passion for the art of defending and felt there was a possible gap in the market he could help fill.

In the end, an offer arrived from Harlequins to be their lineout coach and Flannery couldn’t turn it down. Working alongside Paul Gustard, a renowned defensive expert, was one of the attractions, some of his wife’s family being based in Guildford another.

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Gustard has since moved on, however, and Flannery has ended up in the role he initially planned to seek in France – defence coach, as well as still having lineout duties. Quins have enjoyed an upturn in form since Gustard’s departure, though Flannery still speaks very highly of him, and the Irishman is enjoying his increased responsibility.

“I just see the bigger picture now,” said Flannery this week ahead of Harlequins’ Challenge Cup round of 16 clash with Ulster on Sunday evening [KO 8pm, BT Sport].

“When you’re coaching defence, you’re obviously fixated on defence, but you also see how a really good attack looks and you appreciate it a lot more. Getting to work with [attack coach] Nick Evans has been phenomenal here.

“I was used to playing a certain way and coaching a certain way at Munster and probably where Munster are now, after running through the Pro14 for one season and then coming to the litmus test which is Leinster and they come up short again.

“Munster make the least passes of any team in the Pro14, the least, so you wonder at the end of the season why is it we cannot beat Leinster… Leinster are phenomenal. 

“When I came over here, I was so used to a kicking game being important, defence being important. But when I watched the way Nick Evans and the skillset of the players here and the way they trained, there are so many other ways to play the game, so it’s good for me to broaden my mindset on coaching.”

Flannery left Munster in 2019. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

While adding to his coaching skillset and enjoying the chance to learn outside of the Munster environment he played and coached in, Flannery has been keeping a close eye on all things at home.

Being in England has given him an interesting viewpoint on Irish rugby.

“Being on the far side of the Irish sea, people look at the Irish teams and they look at the Pro14 maybe not being as competitive as the Premiership. It is certainly not as physical,” said Flannery.

“This season, the Pro14 – from what I have watched – hasn’t been competitive outside of the Irish teams whatsoever. It’s the worst I have seen it, but the Irish teams have been mean, they have been good.

“I think it’s a really strong affirmation of how good the academy system is in Irish rugby that there are so many players getting game time and coming through there. Whereas a lot of teams here in the Premiership look to recruit externally. That’s not the best way of building a successful squad, there’s just too much turnover, not enough continuity.

“I think the Irish system works really well there, they build big squads, they get an opportunity to blood them, and they can go into Europe and it works well for them.”

Whatever about the relative merits of the Irish and English systems, an absorbing 80 minutes await at the Twickenham Stoop on Sunday as Quins, now fourth in the Premiership, look to book their quarter-final place.

Flannery played with Ulster boss Dan McFarland in Connacht before the latter moved into coaching and they have stayed in touch ever since. The former Ireland hooker has been impressed with Ulster’s rebuild under McFarland.

“Ulster were traditionally one of the strongest teams in Europe every year, but they were in a really shit place when Dan came in with all the off-field stuff and everything,” said Flannery.

Flannery knows Dan McFarland well. Source: Craig Watson/INPHO

“I felt really bad for all the Ulster supporters and people I knew in Ulster. Dan came in and picked it up and he has turned the club around. It’s easy to come in and make short-term changes, but he has put a foundation in there and there’s a good young core that are going to keep better each year.

“You sprinkle in a little bit of magic with some quality signings, one or two every year, but you have a core that are Ulster players and identify with the province, that the supporters can get behind and Dan has done that really well.

“When I speak to Dan, because he went into coaching before me, I would pick his brain about different things. When we played Glasgow when I was with Munster, I would speak to him – he just loves coaching and developing players and he’s also developing a good coaching group around him too.

“I think Ulster will be delighted with the coaching group they have and they are only going to get better.”

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