The Big Interview: JJ Hanrahan - ‘I was never naive enough to think Munster were always going to take me back’

JJ Hanrahan is already revving in red on his return to Munster, writes Simon Lewis. What did he miss? “What you cannot replace. It’s what you’re representing. You can’t buy that anywhere else in the world.”

JJ Hanrahan is happier that the whole Munster squad is now based in Limerick. Pic: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

For a player who marked his reappearance in red with three clean breaks and two tries in a 25-minute shift off the bench, it sounds a touch out of kilter to hear JJ Hanrahan regard his return to Munster colours in terms of a gradual reintroduction.

More of a crash, bang, wallop than baby steps as the 25-year-old fly-half slotted in at full-back against Cardiff Blues last Saturday for his first action since re-signing from Northampton Saints during the summer.

That Hanrahan had upped sticks two years ago and left his native province for the English Premiership had been both a shock and a disappointment to many, but his homecoming was just the opposite. The Kerry man insisted in conversation with the Irish Examiner this week, however, that rejoining Munster was never something he took for granted.

Nor is he expecting to stroll back into a Munster backline in which the battle for a jersey has never appeared so competitive.

Indeed a starting full-back role at Aviva Stadium this afternoon when Munster renew acquaintances with Guinness PRO14 and derby rivals Leinster will have come as something of a surprise to a player expecting a long, hard journey to get into the province’s senior XV following his two-year sabbatical.

Yet for all obstacles posed by selection rivals, coming home was the obvious choice for Hanrahan.

“Yes, it was pretty much a no-brainer,” he said.

JJ Hanrahan with Ian Keatley

“There was a long-term plan there. It was a great experience to head away over there to England and play in Northampton and in the Premiership. I really, really enjoyed that experience but the longer-term picture was always to come home and I’m happy I did.”

Returning at the conclusion of his two-year contract, though, was not Hanrahan’s decision to make.

“I was never naive enough to think Munster were always going to take me back. I knew it was only going to be down to my performances and how I was playing, if I was getting better and was that going to happen. Munster’s not a place you can just walk into, so I knew I needed to try and prove myself over there.

“I had a very tough second year through injury and stuff but overall I was delighted to get the opportunity to come home.”

That tough second year in Northampton has strengthened the perception that Hanrahan’s time in the East Midlands was a frustrating, unfulfilled period of his career but the man himself looks on it differently.

“I suppose from the outside you’d probably just look at the teamsheet and if you didn’t see my name on it in the second year you’d just say ‘oh, it’s not going well for him’.

“I suppose no-one really understands what’s going on.

“There were three pretty big injuries there which automatically ruled me out. It was nothing to do with selection. On top of that it was a big learning curve, you’re out of your comfort zone, you learn a lot about yourself and it’s a great... when I was playing in big games, against Montpellier, Leicester derbies, things like that, playing against international players week in, week out, that only makes you better.

“One thing I definitely learned is the level, or the requirement you have to get to each week, the requirements on your body, to achieve a good performance, that was a good learning curve.

“There were some pretty awesome guys there at Northampton, the England captain, Dylan Hartley, and Courtney Lawes, who turned out to have an unbelievable year. You could see the influence that Eddie Jones had, kind of trickling down through all the English clubs and into Northampton so to be around those guys was just an unbelievable learning experience.

JJ Hanrahan of Northampton Saints is tackled by Jamie Heaslip of Leinster in Champions Cup clash in 2012. Pic: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

“It’s a different mindset, you’re talking to different coaches and each coach you speak to will have a different philosophy, a different mindset on attack and defence.

“You’re going there with an open mind and listening to what people have to say and you’re playing different systems.

“I remember when I first turned up, the first game they were probably looking at me thinking ‘what way is he playing?’ and I’m looking at them going ‘what way are they playing?’.

“It was a pre-season friendly and the systems weren’t exactly aligned between the two of us but that’s a great learning curve and you figure out what teams want and what players around you like and it just makes you better as a player overall.”

That looks set to benefit Munster with Hanrahan’s former Ireland U20 captain Niall Scannell saying of his friend: “There was disappointment around him leaving in the first place but he went away and he’s obviously grown up.”

The kid that left Munster after the 2015 PRO12 final defeat to Glasgow in Belfast, when he came on as a sub for starting fly-half Ian Keatley, has noticed some changes himself, and not just the bricks and mortar of the High Performance Centre, which sprang up on the University of Limerick campus in his absence.

“It definitely feels different. This is going to be a bit strange to explain because a lot of the stuff is the same but the atmosphere is different. They’ve been winning now and there’s a good winning vibe in the team.

“No matter what team you’re in, or what sport you’re in, in any part of the world, a winning team is always going to be a happier team. So that’s definitely played a part in it from when I left, the success they had last year. Even though they fell one short, this year we want to put it right.

“So that’s definitely been a difference I’ve noticed straight away.

“All the Cork lads are up in Limerick now and everyone is together and that’s a massive part as well, going around to the Scannell’s brothers’ house for barbecues and stuff is probably something you wouldn’t have done before because they were in Cork and I was in Limerick but building that camaraderie with more players is great and something I really enjoy.”

That familiarity is a distinct advantage to come home to but it is suggested to Hanrahan that the same thing was perhaps a reason for leaving Munster in the first place.

“To broaden horizons? Definitely. I was always kind of a, well, some might call it impatience but I’d say I’m just eager for growth. I want to experience new things and to get away and get the opportunity to play in the Premiership, to play in a different league and really challenge myself and see what I’m made of as well, answer a few questions about myself.

“It’s something that came for me and I was really excited about it, so I was happy to do it.”

It is no understatement to say Hanrahan is more than happy to be home.

“What did I miss most? I suppose, really, what you cannot replace when you play for Munster, is what you’re representing. You can’t buy that anywhere else in the world.

“When you play for Munster, it might sound a bit corny but when you grow up in Munster, certainly for me and a lot of other guys are like this as well, I grew up wanting to play for Munster.

“I never grew up wanting to be a professional rugby player. I didn’t grow up really wanting to be a rugby player of any sort. I just wanted to play for Munster.

“I suppose when you go to England you kind of realise it’s a bit more of a profession to an extent.

“That’s not putting English rugby down in any way but it’s really a community in Munster. I’m representing a small village, Currow in Kerry, there’s not many Munster rugby players from Kerry, just myself and Sean McCarthy at the moment and I’m proud of that.

“It’s something that’s meant a lot to me when I got to do that at the weekend it really felt like home out there. It’s just an unbelievable feeling that’s really hard to put into words.

“I suppose it’s what makes the place a little bit special. I suppose it’s not just Munster. If you ask any Leinster, Connacht or Ulster guy they’d have the same feeling about their province and that’s what makes interprovincial derbies so special, particularly in Ireland.

“Everyone has a great pride and passion for their province, where they come from and what they represent and the whole thing is bigger than you, which is what makes it all so exciting.”

Even signing for Rassie Erasmus, a director of rugby whose intention to depart was announced on the first day of pre-season, has not taken the shine off for Hanrahan, who admitted he was shocked to receive the news.

“I suppose, being honest, yes. You look at coaches and set-ups and you go ‘yeah, that seems to be on the right path’. It’s definitely an influencing factor but to say I just signed for Rassie is not true and Rassie would know that as well.

“I’m a Munster man through and through and this is where I always wanted to play. Rassie, from what I’ve seen, is a world-class coach along with Jacques, and the way that Felix and Fla are operating it seems like a really good coaching ticket at the moment.

“Munster are working really hard in the background at the moment to appoint someone new and whoever that may be I’m sure he’ll be the right man for the job. My allegiances still lie with Munster and I’m just happy to be home and whoever comes in charge next that will be the same feeling for me.”

Whoever comes in as the new Munster boss, Hanrahan’s objectives will remain.

Pic: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

At this stage of his career, he needs to make a starting jersey his own.

“That’s the challenge. It’s walk before you can run. As long as I’ve been in Munster, I’ve only gone away for two years, but I’ve never felt or seen competition like this in a backline, from number 10s to centres to back-three players, everyone knows that competition is there.

“One thing I’ve noticed is the standard of training is so high and that will only make you better. All I can really worry about is to try and make my game the best it can be. I can’t think about selection and getting on the team. I can only train as best I can and hopefully that’s good enough to get over the line.

“To think, these days, that you’re going to play every game is a bit crazy because your body doesn’t allow that. There will be times when the team will change around but for me, at the moment it’s just about training as best I can and trying to put the best foot forward and hopefully the rest will fall into place.”

As to where on the field he plays is a subject he is less willing than previously to air.

“Put me in the front row, I’d probably go there at the weekend,” he joked before adding: “At the moment I’ve promised myself that I’m just not going to get caught up in trying to say ‘I’m this’ or ‘I’m that’ or whatever.

“At the moment, I’m back, I’m fit, which is what I’m really happy with and for that I have to thank the medical team here in Munster massively.

“I’m just happy I’m back to full fitness and available for selection.

“Now it’s baby steps, so the first step first and that was getting out on the pitch last weekend and build slowly from here.”

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