JJ raring to go after slow start to life back at Munster

JJ Hanrahan is banking on one fly-half’s ‘player welfare programme’ being another’s opportunity when the Munster team to face Ulster in Belfast on Monday is announced tomorrow.

JJ raring to go after slow start to life back at Munster

Guinness PRO14 - Ulster v Munster

Monday: Kingspan Stadium, 5.35pm

Referee: Sean Gallagher

TV: TG4, BBC2 NI

Bet: Ulster 4/7, Munster 6/4, Draw 17/1

That is not a phrase to have entered the big book of Irish rugby clichés quite yet but the IRFU’s management of the internationals’ minutes is a key component of this most demanding phases of the campaign, as back-to-back Champions Cup games flow into a series of three Guinness PRO14 derby games.

And for each of the four provincial head coaches, getting player rotation right is at the heart of a successful Christmas and New Year.

With Johann van Graan playing many of his Ireland frontliners on St Stephen’s Day in the home loss to Leinster and promising changes for the New Year’s Day visit to Ravenhill, Hanrahan appears primed to replace current preferred No.10 Ian Keatley for the middle game in a seasonal triple bill of interpros.

The rejuvenated Keatley, who since Tyler Bleyendaal went off injured against Castres in mid-October has started six of Munster’s eight games at fly-half, has impressed Hanrahan but the Kerryman — back in Munster from a two-year stint in the English Premiership with Northampton Saints — is eager to get some gametime of his own after just 15 minutes in Munster’s last three games.

Six minutes at the tail end of the home European win over Leicester Tigers was followed by an evening on the bench at Welford Road in the return pool fixture as van Graan left scrum-half Duncan Williams and replacement outside back Keith Earls as well as Hanrahan unused. Then came a closing nine minutes after replacing Keatley, leaving the 25-year-old raring to go.

“I wouldn’t say (it has been) frustrating. I think the main thing for me is that coming back (to Munster) with a shoulder injury, I was out for the bones of six months and I suppose I missed the first five games of the season,” Hanrahan said.

“I was just trying to find my feet early days and you can’t expect really to walk into this team, so for me it is just

grafting every day and keeping my head down and just trying to work on.

“If I get the chance against Ulster, it is a big opportunity. It is not easy up there. Kingspan can be a hostile enough place as we all know, but I think it is a challenge you have to relish if you are going up there.

“They are coming off a big defeat against Connacht, so they will definitely be hurting and they are going to come out of the blocks all guns blazing, so whoever Johann selects for that game, they would want to be ready for it, put it that way.”

Despite just three starts in his eight appearances since returning from England, only two of which were at fly-half, Hanrahan is as confident as he can be about being ready to face Ulster.

“I am happy enough. I think I can improve, there is plenty still to improve on. Rugby is an ongoing battle every day. Some days are good, some are not, especially in the number 10 role.

“Some days you can have really good games, but there is so much more involved than just you to make you perform well. Overall, pretty happy, but keep building.”

The perception of Hanrahan’s time in Northampton is one of a missed opportunity given he joined a struggling side and was hampered by a succession of injuries, particularly during his final season, yet he believes he has

returned to Munster a better player and person for his experience of living and playing in England.

“I suppose the main thing is the game management side of things. A lot of the time when you are over in the Premiership a lot of it can come down to penalties and things like that, sometimes it can be more of a not playing in your own half, put the ball in their half. It is more of a control game. I learned that from being in England and being in the Premiership.

“The physical side of stuff as well, looking after your body, what it takes to play 25 games a year, they are all learnings along the way.

“I suppose it depends on what you deem success as. If you deem success as on the rugby pitch, playing every week, probably not so much because my second year I was only available for 10 games through injury, so you would say no in that aspect, but in terms of an overall holistic approach, from a growth mindset, you would say yeah.”

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