RONAN O'GARA: JJ Hanrahan exit hits Munster rugby hard

Why does JJ Hanrahan’s decision to leave Munster for Northampton Saints hurt so much? Because he’s one of our own, writes Ronan O’Gara.

I was born in San Diego, returned within six months, and I’m from Cork. JJ is from Kerry. If you’re born and bred in the province and you’ve lived there all your life, locals expect you to play with Munster — and with good reason.

That parochialism, mixed with a couple of wonderful acquisitions from abroad, has been one of the province’s strongest traits over the years. Think of all the people who have given everything to Munster rugby; I’d be here forever listing.

Munster won’t like that Hanrahan is leaving, and they’re damn right as he’s such a good player.

If he was average, there wouldn’t be much uproar, but he was an IRB Young Player of the Year nominee, in Limerick he was put in the same bracket as a young Paul O’Connell or Keith Earls in terms of his potential.

Also, with respect, it’s not Ian Keatley leaving. It’s not a fella who was schooled in Leinster rugby, came through their academy then played a few years in Connacht, and has done well since joining Munster. This is one of our own, so it’s hard to take.

I know JJ well. I’ve been a bit of a mentor to him ever since he came into the Munster squad, because he was a fella I identified with early on. He has a certain aura about him, and he also looked very comfortable with a ball.

He’s had a good, hard Kerry upbringing. He’s a rugged, tough player, but equally as skilful. You just know when you do passing drills with backs what a fella is about; working with him on a daily basis reveals all.

You only see about 10% on a Saturday of what players and coaches see every day. For example, certain players might have to make a tackle on their weaker shoulder once in every three games — so any flaw there gets hidden, glossed over.

It’s only in the close-up, everyday scenario that you get to see the total package and the ineptness of certain players, but JJ has very few weaknesses.

I’m biased, because I like him, I rate him, I want him to succeed. I thought when I retired he would kick on to big things at Munster, but that hasn’t happened and he’s frustrated with that. His move to Northampton is a brave one; I think it’s the first time in Munster’s history that a fella of his age — he’s 22 — and talent has decided to move abroad.

So why has it happened? Well, let’s get one thing straight. Many people talk of his versatility and ability to play in the centre, but Hanrahan sees himself as an out-half. He has no interest in playing at 12, he knows he’s not going to be a Test centre for Ireland but his goal is to take over from Johnny Sexton as soon as possible. His ambition is to pay at the highest level, but as a 10.

Hanrahan will be looking to take Stephen Myler’s jersey at Northampton. Myler will be 31 when JJ arrives; that shouldn’t mean much but the perception is that if you’re over 30, your better years are behind you.

JJ has also been very impressed with Alex King, who was a very good out-half in his playing days and broadened his horizons between playing with Wasps and Clermont, coaching at Clermont and now at Northampton. I think JJ feels King can add something to his game that’s missing.

JJ Hanrahan exit hits Munster rugby hard

Hanrahan doesn’t feel he will get in ahead of Keatley under the current management; the clock is ticking so that’s why he’s going. He wants to take Sexton’s place, but he knows he won’t do that sitting on the bench for Munster.

The counter-argument is that he should back himself, stick it out and fight for the jersey but it’s hard when the management are set on giving confidence to Keatley. He requires that to get the best out of him, and he’s done a good job, so it’s a difficult situation for the Munster management.

Some people like competition, others thrive when they know their place is secure and they have the backing of the decision-makers. I think that’s the relationship Keatley has with the Munster management, so JJ felt that not much was going to change.

Yes, he’d get game-time at 10, but not in the big European games and that’s not good for a fella in a hurry. I think that for any local young player who has experienced the atmosphere of a big European night at Thomond Park, it’s impossible to leave. But all JJ has sampled is running out of the tunnel and sitting on the replacements bench — there’s a big difference.

When I was attempting to break into the Munster team, my rival for the jersey was Killian Keane, who was very supportive even though he knew that as I progressed I could take his place. I don’t think Keats looks at it like that — he wants to be in the 23 for Ireland’s first Six Nations game against Italy. Everyone has their own goals; after I went on the 2001 Lions tour, I saw rugby differently in that respect.

I watched how the likes of Neil Back, Rob Howley, Jonny Wilkinson, Neil Jenkins and Martin Johnson looked after themselves, and I became selfish, ruthless, beyond obsessive. I got to the point where I would do whatever it took to play every time in every big game. Anthony Foley obviously feels Keatley is the better player right now. People must appreciate that as head coach, he is the man who sees these players most frequently, and therefore is best placed to make that call.

My gut reaction when JJ was selected at 12 for the second Clermont game in France — having not played in the first one — was that it was a knee-jerk reaction from the management, after the rumours he would leave emerged. But to be fair, Munster’s game-plan was smart and well thought-out; they wanted to stretch Clermont, manipulate their midfield and JJ was making the incisions with his excellent footwork, they just couldn’t land that fatal blow early on.

Hanrahan’s departure will definitely annoy Axel, but believe me, no stone would have been left unturned to convince him he was better off staying. JJ is very strong in his beliefs of how he wants to go about his career.

He’s a ballsy guy who isn’t easily led, the mob doesn’t rule him and you have to admire such a courageous decision at such a young age. It won’t be easy, but I wish him every success — my gut tells me it’s not the last we will see of him in red.

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