Saturday 28 January 2023 Dublin: 4°C
James Crombie/INPHO Hanrahan has made three starts at out-half this season.
# Talent
Munster's Hanrahan will head for Saints looking to fulfill rich promise
The Kerry native appears well suited to the style of rugby Northampton play.

WATCHING JJ HANRAHAN at some of his first senior Munster training sessions, the impression was that the kid from Kerry would establish himself as the province’s first-choice out-half sooner rather than later.

Despite being fresh out of Rockwell College, there was an authority and confidence to Hanrahan’s contributions that suggested his precocious skillset could be rounded out to make him a truly complete out-half.

One of the things that may not always be apparent about Hanrahan watching from the stands or on TV is the quality of his communication. Even as an 18-year-old surrounded by established international players, his chat was concise, precise and demanding.

At 22, there is still more than enough time for Hanrahan to become that complete playmaker, something that he feels can be advanced more swiftly by switching to the Premiership and Northampton Saints.

From Munster’s point of view, Hanrahan’s decision to turn down their three-year contract offer is naturally a major disappointment, although there is likely to be a sense that they are in a position to cope.

There are a handful of factors in Hanrahan’s decision to sign for the Saints, prominent among them being frustration at a lack of starting opportunities at out-half for Munster this season.

Anthony Foley and Rob Penney have both preferred Ian Keatley at 10 for the biggest games of the season in the past two years, clearly believing the 27-year-old could deliver more in those high-pressure situations.

JJ Hanrahan and Ian Keatley James Crombie / INPHO Keatley has been preferred to Hanrahan at out-half this season. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

This season it has been particularly hard to argue with that notion, as Keatley has been in fine form for Foley’s side. The ex-Connacht man is further along the line than Hanrahan in these coaches’ eyes, but how can Hanrahan develop if he is not started in these games?

It’s always a tricky question, but Foley [and Penney before him] is the man who sees his players in the training environment every day and analyses their performances in those sessions and on match day in minute detail.

Keatley has been the firm favourite at 10 and Foley has largely been rewarded. Hanrahan has had three starts at out-half this season – against the Scarlets, Cardiff and Glasgow – but it’s difficult to argue the case that they demanded he retain the jersey.

Hanrahan’s versatility means that he has been a strong option for Munster in the 12 shirt all season too, but Denis Hurley has been preferred in that role due to being more suited to Munster’s tactics and performing his duties well within them.

If you’re going to send your 12 to hit the ball up off first phase possession, a 104kg frame is far more useful than a 91kg one. Frustratingly, both Foley and attack coach Brian Walsh had spoken about using a passing option at 12 earlier this season.

That tactical flourish failed to truly arrive until Munster’s away fixture against Clermont, when they arguably looked their most dangerous in attack all season. Hanrahan at 12 was a passing hub to add width, while also cutting the line himself on one notable occasion.

At that stage, Northampton had already made their play, however, and Hanrahan has now made his choice. The player’s issues with osteitis pubis, which Foley alluded to in defending Hanrahan’s lack of game time, were not helpful at the start of the campaign.

J Hanrahan scores try despite Josh Strauss and Leone Nakarawa Russell Cheyne / INPHO Hanrahan was a try-scorer from out-half against Glasgow. Russell Cheyne / INPHO / INPHO

Interestingly, Hanrahan’s place in Northampton’s first team is far from guaranteed. The underrated England international Stephen Myler – who recently signed a new contract at the club – is firmly established at out-half and has been in sharp form this season.

Jim Mallinder’s words about the Saints growing their “strength in depth” are perhaps not the most encouraging, but Hanrahan will back himself to usurp 30-year-old Myler next season.

There’s been lots of mention of ‘development’ in the various press releases accompanying the official announcement today, but the notion shouldn’t be entirely dismissed as meaningless blurb.

“He’s very, very interested in how Northampton play the game,” Mallinder told BBC Look East today. “When we’ve had him over, we’ve had some real deep chats about how we want to play the game with him.

“I think the other thing is his development. I think he’s probably looked at the side, he’s looked at the players we’ve had and how we do develop the players. Hopefully working with the coaches, Alex King in particular, he can develop into a really good player.”

Self-promotional undoubtedly, but the Saints do indeed play a brand of rugby that would appear to be ideally suited to Hanrahan’s strength. Behind a dominant pack, Northampton look to attack ambitiously with ball in hand, and it’s easy to see the Kerryman fitting in comfortably.

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In that regard, it’s a hugely positive move for Hanrahan and may well be the making of him.

Of course, contract terms are another aspect that came into the reckoning, and it’s understood Hanrahan will earn more in making the move across to England. Could Munster have stretched a little further in that regard?

JJ Hanrahan James Crombie / INPHO Hanrahan was in Munster's midfield last month in Clermont. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

The province themselves will feel they did everything within their power to keep the player.

“I think everybody who’s seen JJ play understands the quality of player he is and why other teams would be going after him,” said Anthony Foley last month. “It’s the same reason we want to keep him.”

The impending arrival of Tyler Bleyendaal from New Zealand is one of the factors that ensures Munster will believe they can cope with the loss of Hanrahan from their squad.

There was some uncertainty over the 24-year-old’s arrival after he underwent neck surgery in September, but Munster remain confident that the former New Zealand U20 captain will become an important player for them from next season onwards, albeit predominantly as a centre.

Johnny Holland may also benefit by moving up the out-half pecking order when Hanrahan departs.

As for Hanrahan himself, there is much he can offer Munster over the remainder of the current season. His plans for nailing down a spot in the Saints XV take a backseat for now.

There is little doubt around the potential of the 22-year-old, and all those with a vested interest in Irish rugby will hope to see Hanrahan develop into the player his skills still suggest he can become.

He may well return in the not-too-distant future to be that first-choice Munster out-half many predicted he would be. His home province will hope to welcome back a much-improved player if that proves the case.

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