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Opinion: Struggling Munster must give Hanrahan more game time

The centre pairing of Denis Hurley and Ivan Dineen struggled in the province’s recent match with Ospreys.

Ivan Dineen featured in the centre for Munster against Ospreys.
Ivan Dineen featured in the centre for Munster against Ospreys.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

IT DIDN’T TAKE us long. A post on Munster’s woes at centre. Stop the clock. Who had their money on four weeks? But yes, here we are. Fresh from Munster’s latest setback, losing at home to Ospreys, we can’t help ourselves. It’s staring us and everyone else in the face, so we can’t avoid it.

For those who didn’t see the game, Denis Hurley and Ivan Dineen played centre as Munster laboured against a far more canny and penetrative Ospreys team. Munster’s best player on show was South African wing van den Heever, whose quick feet were causing Ospreys trouble any time he got the ball. Trouble was, the midfield offered nothing by way of go forward or distribution skills. Dineen and Hurley are hard to differentiate from one another and have deeply un-complimentary skillsets. Dineen has the look of someone who will struggle to get another contract at Munster — mind you, he’s got an extension before on the back of doing very little. This time, judging by certain leaked documents, Frankie will need all his persuasive skills to justify giving Dineen soft MOTM awards, and will really earn his 15% if he keeps him around Thomond.

Hurley, on the other hand, has been a good servant for the province. His switch to 12 has been long-mooted and is a worthwhile experiment. He’s a big strong lad and has good offloading skills, which is a good start. And his time at 15 means he’s got a decent kicking game too. Sounds good on paper, but he’s effectively a like-for-like replacement for James Downey, when what Munster are crying out for is someone who can pass the ball.

The first man to be replaced was Hurley, who got the hook for Andrew Smith. Smith’s most notable contribution was to ignore a juicy-looking overlap on the right wing and to take it into contact instead. A phase later, the ball was turned over. It would leave a coach tearing his hair out.

Now for the important bit. The bit you’ve all been waiting for. The bit where we proclaim JJ Hanrahan the best thing since sliced bread. Okay, maybe not quite, but we’re at least going to say he should be in the team. In his staggeringly brief cameo (he came on for the last 10 minutes), Munster offered more threat than they had done at any stage prior to this, and plenty of the good stuff was coming through JJ.

We’ve been pretty reticent to jump on the Hanrahan bandwagon, but purely due to realism. The same way we haven’t written Stu Olding into the Ireland RWC15 team yet — he’s got buckets of potential, but until he does something, let’s not be too presumptuous. Plus there’s over-the-top BS that almost forces us into the opposing position. Too much feverish hype from the usual quarters — the same ones that told us Danny Barnes was the best thing since etc. Too much desire to make him fit a narrative as the next Golden-Thighed ROG. But let’s face it, the kid is pretty talented. Raw, for sure, but a real footballer. Not quite Beauden Barrett; but then who is? He’s a better player than they have in the team at the minute.

Why are Munster persisting with jobbing tradesmen at centre when they could be giving valuable match time to a far more talented player, one who could conceivably be the future of the province? He certainly has much much more to add than Dineen and Smith. Why was it left until the last 10 minutes to bring him on, when the game was crying out for him? Axel Foley declared himself open to the idea of playing both Keatley and Hanrahan in a pre-season interview; so why hasn’t he given him more time on the pitch? In his defence, Hanrahan was injured for the first two rounds, but Saturday was the perfect opportunity to give the partnership a look; for twenty minutes at least.

Now he finds himself staring down the barrel of Leinster and Danny Cipriani in the ERCC, with the choice between persisting with his tried-and-tested-but-pretty-moderate, or chucking everything behind a second-five-eighth gameplan that’s as yet untried. He’s a rookie coach, and his backroom team are all pretty rookie-ish too — Axel isn’t a guy who you would expect to shirk a decision, but there is a little extra pressure when the buck stops with you.

That said, Axel was trumpeted (not by himself) as heralding a “return to traditional Munster values” — and having rubbish centres is about as traditional Munster as you can get. Sorry, couldn’t help that.

Irving Chernev wrote that ‘chess is not a game for timid souls,’ and the same holds true of rugby. Axel must grasp the nettle. Just pick the guy already, at 10, 12, 13 or wherever. Get him involved. Somehow.

A version of this piece originally appeared here.

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