Sunday 17 November 2019

Kerryman looks ready to be team's first-choice playmaker

Friday Focus: JJ Hanrahan

JJ Hanrahan
JJ Hanrahan

Daragh Small

Munster head coach Johann van Graan believes Stephen Larkham's influence has transformed the mindset of his players in pivotal positions, and out-half is somewhere Munster are stacked with quality.

Despite Joey Carbery's inclusion in Ireland's World Cup plans, Munster still had Tyler Bleyendaal and JJ Hanrahan to choose from in the No 10 shirt.

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But as well as providing strong options in the ten shirt the duo have provided increased possibilities when it comes to who will fill their inside-centre and full-back berths too.

And after last weekend's 28-12 bonus point win over Ospreys at Irish Independent Park, Van Graan acknowledged the depth of talent he has at his disposal in the more creative areas of the pitch.

"Stephen Larkham has quite a few ideas about second receivers," said Van Graan.

"At this stage we played Tyler and JJ, two starts each, so we'll keep rotating them. They are very valuable to us and they have been at Munster for a long time. They have had renewed energy with Steve coming in, playing 100 Test matches.

"Both are doing very well and even in our play you'll see it doesn't really matter what the number is on your back between 10, 12 or 15.

"You have seen Dan Goggin in at first receiver position, so we are playing around with it. It certainly is an option.

"Tyler played 12 before, it's just I guess what plan we go for in what game," added Van Graan.

Hanrahan will see 2019-20 as an opportunity to finally stake his claim as the chief-operator in the out-half position.

His natural talent was never doubted, and he is one of three Irish players to ever be nominated for the World Rugby Junior Player of the Year. He shares that accolade with Garry Ringrose and Max Deegan, while Bleyendaal was also in the mix during his tenure with the Baby Blacks of New Zealand.

Inspired

But the Kerry native is as homegrown as they come in the province. From the village of Currow he could have opted to play Gaelic football or basketball but he was inspired to play rugby and when he was 16, and once he attended Rockwell College, his hunger for the game only increased.

Hanrahan was hooked, and he grew up watching Ronan O'Gara, Matt Giteau and Dan Carter at their prime, all of whom had an influence on his game.

He would go on to wear O'Gara's famed No 10 jersey for Munster, and in Carter's first game for Racing 92 his direct opponent was Hanrahan in a Northampton Saints jersey that day.

There has definitely been a hint of the unconventional to everything the former Castleisland clubman has done and that only adds to the intrigue. He may have parted ways with the superstition of putting the right sock on first before every game but he is still an enigma.

His first link with Munster came when he spent two years in the academy, before a development deal followed ahead of the 2012-13 season. Hanrahan had already made his debut for the senior team in a pre-season clash with La Rochelle in 2011.

But it was in June 2012 that the world finally took notice of the right-footed boy wonder from Ireland. The Ireland U20s finished fifth in the World Rugby Junior Championships and Hanrahan was nominated for the best player award.

He ultimately missed out on that prize but nevertheless expectations grew and grew.

Hanrahan played his first competitive fixture for Munster off the bench against Dragons in September 2012, his first start came against Zebre, his Champions Cup debut was in October of that year.

Having already experienced the glory of winning a B&I Cup with the province, he signed his first full senior contract with Munster in 2013-14, and perhaps his most memorable moment in the Munster shirt came that season when he danced down the touchline to score the winning try in the 81st minute of a key Heineken Cup game away to Perpignan.

"I looked at the clock just before I came on and I knew we were four points down and all we needed was a try. I touched it down in the corner," he said afterwards.

He had the world at his feet but Hanrahan yearned for something more, and with Ian Keatley winning the battle to replace Ronan O'Gara, and Bleyendaal on the way into the squad something had to give.

Hanrahan was the Young Player of the Year at the Munster Rugby awards in 2014 and his outstanding success rate of 88.71 per cent from the kicking tee, earned him the PRO14 Golden Boot that season too. He went on to represent the Emerging Ireland team but eventually opted for a fresh start in England, where Franklin's Garden and Northampton Saints was the next port of call. It was a big shock for Munster supporters

Hanrahan played 30 times in two seasons for the Premiership outfit but injuries took their toll during that spell across the water. Nevertheless having grown his CV and picked up some valuable experience in the interim he returned to Limerick a more rounded player.

He was man of the match in his 100th appearance for Munster against Benetton Rugby in June 2017, and also slotted the winning penalty at the death against the same opponents in the PRO14 quarter-finals earlier this year.

He has proven his mettle for the club and now he can push on and take this opportunity to make the No 10 jersey his own. Bleyendaal is still a challenger, while Carbery is regarded as the pack leader, but Hanrahan is unlikely to feel any degree of weakness in that battle.

He is the team's top scorer with 29 points in 199 minutes of action this season, and he looks primed to take on all-comers now.

Irish Independent

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