COMMENT: Munster supporters left to wonder as homegrown star Hanrahan exits stage

It should have been a day when the retention of Ian Keatley for another two seasons was celebrated by Munster supporters, along with the commitment shown by three up and coming players, writes Simon Lewis.

But pleasure quickly gave way to deep disappointment in the province when it emerged rising star JJ Hanrahan was jumping ship with the belief his future looked brighter over the water with Northampton Saints.

You have to wish the young Kerryman all the very best of luck as he prepares to join the reigning English champions and current Premiership leaders for next season.

He has signed with a proud club every bit as grounded in the roots of the game as Munster, whose supporters are as dedicated and passionate as the ones he will be leaving behind at Thomond Park.

Yet the 22-year-old’s decision to leave Munster should be deeply troubling to its supporters for this is no seasoned campaigner going in search of new challenges or a big pay day.

This is a young player with an extremely bright future, a product of Rockwell College and the Munster Academy who had been earmarked for greatness in his home province and had already shown us flashes of the brilliance that seemed destined to come. Instead, Munster’s long-term investment in Hanrahan’s potential will now be rewarded in the English East Midlands.

What makes matters worse for Munster is that Hanrahan will arrive at Franklin’s Gardens in the summer with no greater expectation of a prominent starting role with Saints than he had in his home club.

Hanrahan may have 51 Munster caps to his name, but only 23 starts with Anthony Foley backing Ian Keatley as his first-choice fly-half.

Northampton’s director of rugby Jim Mallinder also has his main man at No.10 with Stephen Myler at the peak of his powers having engineered last season’s Premiership final victory over Saracens.

In welcoming Hanrahan’s signature Mallinder made it perfectly clear he sees the Irishman as an investment in potential, not a ready-made knight in shining armour ready to take charge of his side.

Saints have little need for one of those with Myler keeping them on track for a successful English title defence.

Nor are there any better prospects of Hanrahan breaking up a range of Test-quality options at inside centre led by England’s Luther Burrell, although the Kerryman’s deployment at 12 outside of Keatley in recent weeks — successful in Clermont and off the bench against Leinster yet not so impressive last week at Connacht — may well have convinced him he would rather pursue excellence at fly-half rather than the sort of versatility that has seen him play at 10, 12 and 15 already this season.

Perhaps it is that question of his preferred position that is at the crux of the decision-making process.

The nearest comparison for Munster to make might be the defection of bright young thing Jeremy Staunton to Harlequins at the age of 24, frustrated by a lack of opportunity behind Ronan O’Gara and not happy in other positions in the backline.

Perhaps the paucity of genuinely exciting homegrown backs is the real issue, the recent success stories of Simon Zebo, Conor Murray and Keith Earls exceptions rather than indicators of a thriving production line.

The fact we have to look back to 2004 for a precedent should tell us how ominous this decision could prove for a province desperately in need of a creative spark that has now seen its brightest hope run off with the matches.

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