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Battle for Ireland hooker spot 'wide open' -- Jerry Flannery

The new Harlequins forwards coach hopes to see a stand-out emerge after Rory Best’s exit last year.

(L-R) Helleher, Herring and Heffernan were the men at the top of Andy Farrell's list early this year.
(L-R) Helleher, Herring and Heffernan were the men at the top of Andy Farrell's list early this year.

OCTOBER FEELS AN awfully long time ago, but Ireland have only played three matches since Rory Best hung up his boots and left a vacancy as automatic starting hooker.

In his first runs as a head coach, Andy Farrell handed the number two jersey to Ulster’s Rob Herring while the up-and-coming talent of Ronan Kelleher was sprung from the bench. Best’s long-term understudy Sean Cronin was left out of Farrell’s Six Nations along with Munster’s Niall Scannell.

Flannery, whose time as a hooker included a Grand Slam with Ireland and two Heineken Cups with Munster and is now settling into a role as line-out coach with Harlequins, feels there is not yet one clear stand-out option to take over Best’s mantle long-term.

“The hooker slot at the moment with the national team is wide open,” said Flannery when asked about the credentials of Connacht’s Dave Heffernan after he was selected as the third hooker in Farrell’s squad for the Six Nations.

“Heffernan is a good player. He’s busy, he’s got a good work-rate – he plays bigger than he actually is. He’s a converted back row and I think his fundamentals around his throwing are pretty decent so I think it’s going to come down to form. 

“I don’t think there’s anyone there who has got a particular skill-set that marks them out ahead of anyone else, in terms of one player being a far better footballer or one player being far bigger.

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“So, I think it’s up in the mix. I think Heffernan is definitely a guy who can contribute at that level. ”

Flannery reiterated the point when asked about the loss of Best to the international side, calling on one of the candidates to ‘own the jersey’ whenever rugby resumes.

“Ireland are in transition anyway coming from Joe Schmidt so you’re going to have someone who’s going to step in there and, I suppose, own the jersey and they’ll have to find what it is that makes them ‘undroppable’.

“They’ve got to have good fundamentals for their position and after that if you’re looking at what Andy Farrell wants from a team it’s generally guys who have got loads of energy on both sides of the ball and are aggressive and go after it. 

“So, the recipe is there for the players. It’s just about if they get a shot.”

Flannery is looking forward to getting his shot at coaching in the Premiership as he takes ownership of Quins’ line-out. In a way, he is following in the footsteps of perhaps Ireland’s finest ever hooker by pulling on the Harlequin and he fondly recollects when Keith Wood returned from his stint in England to represent Munster.

‘They played Munster in the European Cup (in 1997) and Quins came over and I just remember watching the game and seeing all the Munster players trying to get stuck into him.

“Obviously, when Woody came back to Munster then, I was training with the team at the time and it was pretty amazing to see a guy who went to the same school as me playing for the Lions.And he made playing sexy.”

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Sean Farrell

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