Sunday 25 March 2018

Hanrahan blow leaves Munster facing reality of new world order

Northampton make homegrown hero an offer he couldn't refuse

JJ Hanrahan's decision to sign for Northampton has taken most of the Munster faithful by surprise.
JJ Hanrahan's decision to sign for Northampton has taken most of the Munster faithful by surprise.
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

FORGET smelling the coffee, there's nothing like a slap in the face to wake you up.

Munster got just that yesterday when the best out-half to come through their own ranks since Ronan O'Gara informed them that he was off for pastures new before he'd even established himself as No 1 at the province.

A native of Currow, Co Kerry who attended Tipperary's Rockwell College and finished his schooling at UL Bohemians and the provincial academy, here was a sparkling talent with the attributes needed to make him a franchise player.

Exciting, nerveless and clearly a little impatient, he felt more love from across the Irish Sea and has decided to try his luck at Northampton.

There was a time when the Munster name was enough to keep an aspiring young tyro at Thomond Park, but these days a reactive offer of a three-year deal in response to the lure of a contract believed to be worth more than €170,000 a year from the English champions could not keep this potential star in the southwest.

Instead, he'll learn his trade under Jim Mallinder in a backline that has produced some scintillating rugby this season and contains a bona fide world star in George North.

It won't do his chances of winning an Ireland cap any favours, given Johnny Sexton is the only foreign-based player to have won a cap under Joe Schmidt, but a lack of game-time was clearly an issue.

Anthony Foley belatedly included the previously under-used Hanrahan in his team away to Clermont and an improved three-year contract was put on the table. But the 22-year-old had had his head turned and he trusted his initial instincts.


Yesterday, Munster got some good news out of the way by heralding new contracts for the man keeping Hanrahan out of the team, Ian Keatley, as well as rising stars Jack O'Donoghue, Shane Buckley and Cian Bohane, before they dropped their bombshell.

Simultaneously, the Saints broke their good news by accompanying a story about their new signing with a picture of Keatley. They later amended their error.

While paying big bucks for an uncapped fly-half with just 23 starts to his name over the course of three seasons is not an option for the Irish provinces, the Premiership clubs think nothing of it.

Just this week, Wasps added Jimmy Gopperth to their roster for next season, while Bath will choose between Wales' Rhys Priestland and England's rising young star, George Ford, after the World Cup.

None of the trio of moving No 10s are guaranteed first-team spots, but they are all commanding big salaries. Gopperth will earn more than €350,000 per annum in Coventry, while Priestland will pocket more than €300,000.

Munster yesterday signed their first-choice fly-half Keatley up for a further two years, but the Dubliner is unlikely to have commanded that sort of cash.

The French clubs have created headlines for their big spending, and their English counterparts are beginning to flex their muscle with the new provision of two 'marquee signings' allowed outside the existing salary cap extending their room for manoeuvre.

Backed by multi-millionaire owners and an enormous television deal with BT Sport, the bigger English clubs have been pillaging Wales and Scotland for years, but Ireland has proven less fertile hunting ground.

With the help of private backers, the IRFU can offer their biggest names the kind of deals that can keep them at home, but it is harder to nail down young talent when the big clubs with deep pockets come calling.

Before this, it has been the third or fourth choice players who have left for game-time, but Hanrahan marks a new departure. Until Hanrahan's bombshell, very few players of his ilk have left.

Just as Sexton's travails in Paris were closely watched by all of the senior internationals nearing the end of their deals, rising stars growing impatient with their lack of opportunities will also be keeping an eye on Hanrahan's game-time.

The initial signs are that he'll be deployed in a similar role as he has been at Munster, but Mallinder sees him as a long-term No 10 as competition to incumbent Stephen Myler.

"He can be an outstanding player long-term. He's already got very good kicking record, he's very accurate from the boot both at goal and out of hand," said the Saints coach.

"He's got a really nice attacking game, organising, he's shown a big interest in how Northampton play, and when we've had him over we've had some really deep chats about how we want to play the game with him.

"The other thing is his development - he's looked at our side, the players we've had and how we develop the players."

It leaves Munster with a problem. With Paul O'Connell the last of their Heineken Cup-winning icons still starting every game, the province are building their new team around a bunch of high quality, home-grown players like Peter O'Mahony, Conor Murray, Simon Zebo, Dave Kilcoyne, Dave Foley and James Cronin.

Hanrahan was surely slated to become part of that. Rarely does Ireland produce a player, let alone a fly-half, capable of shining brightly enough to be nominated for World Junior Player of the Year, but the Kerryman did just that two years ago.

Now, they must hope that New Zealander Tyler Bleyendaal makes an instant impact when he finally overcomes his neck problems as the two-time European champions contemplate their place in the world.

Irish Independent

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