Munster’s JJ Hanrahan hit “rock bottom” when he was axed for last season’s European Cup quarter-final after playing “the worst game of rugby of my life”.
Speaking with Duncan Casey and Duncan Williams on the Irish Examiner’s Duncan & Duncan podcast, Hanrahan described the period that followed as the turning point in his second coming as a Munster out-half.
“I’ve not been picked for Munster games before but that was probably the first time I felt I was really dropped. It was a big game. I’ve always been in a position where I was on the bench or maybe starting. But this time I was completely out of the squad. Not within an ass’s roar of it.
“That was rock bottom for me. And I was going into it thinking it might be my 100th game.
“The Zebre game the week before I pretty much played the worst game of rugby I’ve ever played in my life. I was kicking balls into fellas’ legs. It was like ‘what am I doing’. I was five metres out from the tryline and I tried to grubber a ball through. I was coming off the field saying that is quite simply the worst game of rugby I’ve even watched someone play not to mind being the person who’s done it.
To play that kind of game of rugby at that level, you’’re going ‘my God’. So I had a good sit down with the missus after that and a good chat through things.
“And in fairness, James Cronin brought me for a coffee as well and just said you’re not playing the way you were anymore. You’re not playing as yourself.”
What followed was a period of reassessment where the Kerryman tried to recapture the feel for the game that had once made him a World Rugby Junior Player of the Year nominee.
“I would have had regular contact with Bomber (Andrew Conway) as well around the mental side of the games.
“From that point on, I kind of went back to what your instinct is and playing with enjoyment. Going back and remembering why you started playing rugby. And then throughout the years all the experience you’ve gained will come into the game. Rather than trying to force it and think about it, just play. And inevitably, seven or eight times out of ten, you get the decision-making right because you’’re getting more into the flow as opposed to thinking.”
Hanrahan has been a regular in the Munster 10 shirt this season before the campaign was shut down.
“It has been massive for me. From a personal point of view, just to know you can still do something here. It’s been a long time coming for myself as an individual not to mind for everyone who supports me.
“There have been a couple of hiccups along the way as well. But once you get eight or nine games, you’ve gone through a lot of different types of games as well.
“You might have to close out a game, you might have to try and win something at the death, When you haven’t been in that scenario regularly enough, it makes it very difficult.
“But all of a sudden, you’’ve done it three games ago it means you remember a scenario, and it rings a bell.
“And performances start happening, and people go ‘that fella can play’.”
Hanrahan left Munster in 2015 to get regular gametime at Northampton but answered the call to return to the province in 2017, when Rassie Erasmus was head coach.
“Rassie rang me. I had never met Rassie before. I’d never met someone who was so straight and direct down the phone in my life. I was a little bit taken aback by him, I was ‘what do I say here’.
“He was in contact quite regularly, Felix Jones as well, had a big part to play in it.” He admits it took time to settle back into what should have been a familiar setup.
“I came back with a bust-up shoulder so I was in the middle of rehab.
“I had some good mates there but to be honest initially I felt kind of on the outskirts of the squad. Young lads had come through, a couple of older fellas had gone, the dynamic of the group had changed. You just have to figure out the lie of the land. It was totally different.
“The lads were a year down the line. They had Rassie and Jacques (Nienaber) for a year at this stage and had a good handle on what they were trying to do. Rassie was such an imposing figure. With Rassie, I’d never seen anyone operate the way he was operating. I was kind of almost, sitting back.
Maybe that was a mistake I made, not imposing myself enough on the group, not having that confidence to start leading from the front straight away. And that probably came back to bite me in that first year.
Hanrahan also spoke about how Munster players are coping during the current shutdown. “It was grand while you could run and had access to pitches but the cardio equipment is coming in handy now, because UL is completely shut down. They divided out the cardio equipment. Some guys got watt bikes, some got rowers.
“We had a fitness test last week. Basically, a 1k time trial, shuttles, a watt bike or a burpee test. Four things to do, belt it out, and take a video of yourself doing it and send it in.
“The crowd that I do a lot of my kicking stuff with, the School of Kicking in the UK, sent me a pop-up net for the backyard.
“So it’s more technique stuff, which is great, because you never miss.
“And BJ Botha gave us all a shadow ball so we’re all hopping those off the walls.”