'Big-game player' Hanrahan steps in and steps up to mark
Munster 30 Castres 5
With all of the furore and excitement surrounding Joey Carbery's move south, it has been easy to forget that Munster's prodigal son had returned 12 months previously.
Yesterday was a redemptive afternoon for JJ Hanrahan, who donned the No 10 jersey for the first time in a European game and made it his own.
Promoted at the 11th hour when Carbery failed a fitness test after injuring his hamstring in training, the 26-year-old scored 20 of his side's points in an important win, but perhaps more importantly he ran the game well.
The former nominee for World U-20 Player of the Year has endured a circuitous route to this point, with famous game-winning moments during his first stint at Munster, a frustrating two-year hiatus with Northampton Saints and a difficult 18 months since coming back to his home province.
Perhaps the nadir for the Kerryman came when he dropped the ball over his own line in Glasgow earlier this season and at that point it looked like he was in danger of losing his way.
Given the arrival of Carbery, return to fitness of Tyler Bleyendaal and the presence of Ian Keatley and Bill Johnston in the squad, he could have dropped down the pecking order, but instead he has assiduously built his confidence back up.
There have been signs in recent weeks that he was coming back into form, but yesterday he delivered when his team needed him in a fraught encounter.
"He's made some big decisions in his career and he's headed away from the place we all love and come back to us and he's been unbelievable for us since he's come back," captain Peter O'Mahony said of his out-half.
"He's been asked to play in a couple of positions and it's been difficult at times for him, but there's a huge strength of character there and you see a guy who wasn't in during the week step in and perform like that.
"It's the biggest test of all to come in late like that, I think. It's a difficult thing to do and to perform like that, it's a huge positive in his character.
"He's a big-game character and it's been great to have him back the last couple of months."
Coach Johann van Graan has had to be convinced of Hanrahan's capabilities, but having entrusted him with the start he was pleased with the results.
"I'm very happy with his game management," he said.
"We knew beforehand that if you play too much rugby in your own half, then you're going to get punished.
"He varied our play very well. I thought him and Conor (Murray) together with Mikey (Haley) and Rory (Scannell) - our main decision makers - put us in the right areas of the field.
"Our scrum did pretty well to put pressure on them and our lineout contesting - they didn't get any scrum or lineout base until late in the game and that went a long way to helping us win the game.
"We've got good competition and we've got a saying that 'we don't compete against each other, we compete with each other' and that's the beauty of sport. If one guy has an opening you've got to take it. I think he did.
"That being said, we've got five quality out-halves in our squad."
Although not yet at full speed, Murray's capacity to choose his moments brilliantly proved a key factor in shaking off a dogged but limited Castres side, who came to Limerick with a game-plan designed to frustrate.
It made for a boring watch and the home side couldn't quite break free in a turgid first 40 minutes where they dominated possession and territory, but were only rewarded with a pair of Hanrahan penalties.
Still, their set-piece and breakdown work were good enough to give them a secure platform in the game and with their visitors keen to play without the ball, there was a sense that the pressure would eventually tell.
That it was Murray who broke the game open was no surprise, as he held off Thibault Lassalle's tackle just long enough to pop the ball to Rory Scannell, who stepped through Loic Jacquet's poor attempt to stop him to score.
Another piece of Murray magic sent CJ Stander through a gap and he steamrolled Scott Spedding to score a second that effectively ended the game as a contest.
Hanrahan converted both tries and then popped up on Alby Mathewson's shoulder to finish the move of the match, as centres Rory Scannell and Sam Arnold combined with a superb one-two to break the line.
Arnold himself was in as a late replacement for Chris Farrell, who injured his thigh in the warm-up, and both he and Carbery are doubts for the rematch.
O'Mahony, meanwhile, is expecting a very different challenge.
"We also do get a warm one," he said of the reception he expects in Castes.
"We've played each other the most of any two teams in the competition and it's always incredibly intense and heated and you've the cauldron over there that is Castres rugby and we'll be under no illusions that we'll be going into a hostile environment. They're the days that you look forward to, though.
"You know, it's the biggest test of all, the French Top 14 champions in their backyard, it doesn't get any bigger than that, but we'll be looking forward to it and we'll certainly be very conscious of the test that's coming.
"Neither of us are going to change the wheel for next week so you've a bit of your work done, but it's just a different animal over there."
They'll need the same again and more on Saturday.
MUNSTER - M Haley (T Bleyendaal 77); A Conway, C Farrell, R Scannell, K Earls; JJ Hanrahan, C Murray (A Mathewson 69); D Kilcoyne (J Loughman 73), N Scannell (K O'Byrne 45), J Ryan (C Parker ); T Beirne, B Holland (F Wycherley 69); P O'Mahony (capt), C Cloete (A Botha 65), CJ Stander
CASTRES - S Spedding; A Batlle (M Laveau 59), T Combezou, F Vialelle, T Paris; B Urdapilleta, L Radosavljevic (R Kockott 77); A Tichit (P Fa'anunu 45), J Jenneker (K Firmin 45), D Kotze (M Clerc 45); L Jacquet (C Samson 63), T Lassalle; M Babillot (capt), K Gimeno (Y Caballero h-t), A Tulou (J Caminati 72)
Ref - JP Doyle (England)