JJ Hanrahan making the most of his new opportunity
Leaving Munster was tough but out-half is enjoying the 'whirlwind' of life in the Premiership at Northampton
JJ Hanrahan knew a day would come when he'd need a song to sing and it came the Monday morning after he made his debut for Northampton Saints last October.
One of the club's traditions is that every player is given a tweed jacket after his first senior cap and he must also sing or perform something at the team meeting the following Monday. Hanrahan and his former Munster team-mate and friend Barry O'Mahony learned the words to 'Big Strong Man' a few years ago.
The folk song is full of hyperbole about a man with exaggerated strength who did extraordinary things like swim from New York to Italy. So wearing his new club tweed jacket, Hanrahan sang this old Irish ballad to a room full of Northampton players. They hadn't a clue what he was singing. But it was the ideal ice-breaker for him.
'Big Strong Man' is a fantasy tale but the news of Hanrahan's departure from Munster last season was one which was hard to believe. Whenever history judges Anthony Foley's time in charge, the beginning of the end could be pointed at Hanrahan leaving and the frustration it caused supporters.
While it was ultimately Hanrahan's decision of course, it was still incredible that a player who was capable of extraordinary things on the pitch, and was one of the most naturally-talented backs to come through the Munster academy, was allowed leave a team which he described playing for as "living the dream".
Hanrahan found it hard to get his head around playing and training with Munster one day and leaving for a new club the next.
"Life's too short for regrets," Hanrahan said this week when I asked him if there were any regrets, before he added: "It's not easy leaving a club like Munster, definitely not an easy place to leave. It took me a long time to get over it."
Northampton helped him settle into his new life and it started with where he was going to live. When it was suggested to him about living in a farmhouse around six miles outside the town in the countryside, this appealed to him having grown up in the country at home in Currow, Co Kerry. So he moved in with Calum Clarke, Jon Fisher and James Craig.
Three Northampton forwards and a Kerryman in a farmhouse; it's a dynamic which seems to work and they all sit down together for dinner in the evenings.
"They're interesting characters. And they really opened my eyes up with how they train and they eat so healthily. We've got a food rota going here so you pick your night to cook".
So what did he cook them the first night? "Sweet potato, broccoli and steak, with parma ham and melon as starters," Hanrahan laughs.
The 23-year-old finds himself also feeding off the knowledge of his house-mates. Fisher has got him into hot yoga for recovery and mobility and he's also started mindfulness meditation. And reading.
Fisher's collection of books has Hanrahan reading like never before with books including James Kerr's 'Legacy, The Art of Learning'; 'An Inner journey to Optimal Performance' by Josh Waitzkin and 'The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance' by George Mumford which particularly resonated with Hanrahan and getting into "the flow state" and playing what's in front of you.
But the biggest thing Hanrahan has learnt since he left Munster was figuring out where the inspiration for playing with another club was going to come from.
"It's easy to be inspired when playing for Munster as it's your dream as a kid growing up watching all the legends that played in the red jersey, the famous games and wins that you watched on telly or attended in the old Thomond.
"All that makes for serious motivation to train hard for what your representing - family, friends, Currow, Kerry, history of Munster. You're simply living your dream everyday you're involved in the club," Hanrahan says.
"Obviously when you move club, you can't use that same inspiration as it's not the exact same, certain things stay consistent but other stuff changes. I didn't set out as a kid to be a professional rugby player, it was purely to play for Munster. So this opportunity I've taken in Northampton is very different for me as it's completely new and not something I grew up as a kid thinking about."
Hanrahan always had a huge appetite to learn - even down to making sure he sat behind Ronan O'Gara in meetings when he was in the Munster academy so he could watch what O'Gara wrote into his notes.
"I was just trying to see how the best player does it," Hanrahan says. So, it's no surprise that Hanrahan reconfigured what's driving him as a professional rugby player with Northampton. "It has challenged me on a personal and professional level in so many ways over the last eight to 10 months," Hanrahan admits.
"But I've grown so much as a person in this club as I now have a deeper, personal inspiration for training and playing rugby now than I ever had before and coming here allowed me to do that and showed me what I'm made of essentially."
He describes his time at Northampton as a "whirlwind" so far. Besides flying back for the day for his graduation from UL with a Bachelor of Business Studies, last weekend was his first time to get home to Currow for a few days since he made his debut at the end of October because he's been part of the Saints match-day squad every weekend since. He has started seven out of 26 Premiership and Champions Cup games this season and was on the bench for the remainder of the games as he battles with Stephen Myler for the starting fly-half position.
If Hanrahan left Munster to get more game-time, how is he handling the fact that he still starts most games on the bench? While he says he would obviously love to start every game, he says he's changed his attitude to coming off the bench: "Just because you don't start ,doesn't mean you're not a good player," Hanrahan says. "I just want to constantly develop."
He describes his relationship with Myler as "co-operative competition" which is a neat way of putting it but they do work a lot together on coming up with different options and plans for attack for the team which is encouraged by the coaches at Northampton: "It's great to have an input. If it's your idea, you will live with it and drive it on along with the rest of the players in the squad".
Hanrahan's ability to confuse defenders was on show again when he scored his first try for his new club last month as he jinked his way to the line in their home win over Sale Sharks. His performances have been praised by the likes of Austin Healy and Ugo Monye on BT Sport.
While Hanrahan hopes his move to Northampton will benefit him in the longer term with a view to playing for Ireland, it was another Kerryman who made his breakthrough in this season's Six Nations.
"I remember handing out a medal or a jersey to him (Ultan Dillane) when he was playing with West Munster and I was in the Munster academy. You heard all the stories up along about how good he was," Hanrahan recalls. "It was great to see a Kerryman wear the green jersey",
Hanrahan will get a chance to win silverware with his new club when he plays in the Aviva 'A' Final on Monday evening against Exeter. He's played four games with the 'A's which gave him a chance to start more games and play around 55 minutes before being taken off.
Today, just like his former club, Northampton (who lie in sixth position in the Premiership table) resume their fight to qualify for next season's Champions Cup when they play Bath.
Hanrahan tries to catch the Munster games when they are shown on Sky Sports and he keeps in regular contact with his friends at Munster.
"They take some of the losses as bad as you could imagine," Hanrahan says about his former team-mates and the season they're having.
Hanrahan nicely sidesteps a question about returning to Munster some day by saying that you never know what will happen in the future. On the appointment of Johan 'Rassie' Erasmus as Director of Rugby with Munster, Hanrahan points out that "change is not always a bad thing".
Hanrahan should know. He's proving it.