Ireland's Six Nations title defence suffered a further serious blow yesterday’s after hooker Jerry Flannery was banned from the rest of the tournament.
ain game: Flannery’s six-week suspension leaves last season’s Grand Slam winners largely dependent on Rory Best, the Ulster skipper who has just returned to action after seven months on the touchline following surgery on a neck injury and a lengthy spell of gruelling rehabilitation.
Speaking ahead of yesterday’s widely anticipated Flannery ban Best said: “Nobody enjoys benefitting from a colleague’s misfortune, whether it’s an injury or something like this. You’d rather win your place on merit.”
Number three in the Irish hookers’ pecking order is Connacht’s Sean Cronin, 23, whose experience at international level amounts to a few minutes as a replacement in the November friendly against Fiji.
Flannery, who pleaded guilty to kicking France wing Alexis Palisson and admitted he ought to have been sent off, can resume playing on March 29.
That means he misses Ireland’s RSB 6 Nations matches against England, Wales and Scotland as well as Munster’s Magners League dates with Edinburgh, Newport Gwent Dragons and Glasgow Warriors.
The IRFU and Ireland team management will wait to review the full written judgement before considering whether or not to appeal against yesterday’s ruling by the Six Nations disciplinary committee.
Many observers felt Flannery was fortunate to have avoided dismissal on Saturday, England’s Wayne Barnes having opted just to award France a penalty.
That decision followed the referee’s consultation with touch judge Stuart Terheege, who advised his compatriot that he thought the challenge had been a shoulder charge.
On Monday, however, Flannery was named by Scottish citing commissioner Peter Brown, leading to yesterday's hearing.
Flannery was cited for his 23rd minute kick at the legs of Brive’s Palisson, who had just picked up a loose ball. The French wing limped off with a dead leg soon afterwards.
An independent three-man disciplinary committee chaired by Roger Morris of Wales, assisted by England's Mike Hamlin and John Doubleday, found Flannery's offence had been reckless rather than deliberate and therefore ruled that it merited a mid-range sanction under International Rugby Board regulation 17.
A statement added: “The committee also took account of the guilty plea by the player, who acknowledged at the outset that his action warranted a red card, together with the player's remorse for the injury caused to Alexis Palisson, the France wing.”
Best seems certain to deputise for Flannery when Ireland face England in Twickenham next weekend and yesterday's decision may force the Ireland management to instruct his withdrawal from the Ulster team which takes on Dragons in the Magners League at Ravenhill tomorrow night.
Flannery is free to begin playing again on in the week of Munster's crunch Magners League clash against Leinster in Thomond Park.