Decision-making may be JJ Hanrahan’s vocation as a Munster fly-half, but the 21-year-old Kerryman has become adept at making the right calls off the pitch as he negotiates the pitfalls of a fledgling professional career.
This season, as his province adjusts to life without Ronan O’Gara, Hanrahan has been attempting to establish himself as a viable alternative to the more experienced newly-installed first-choice out-half Ian Keatley.
Hanrahan will get another opportunity to do so this Saturday night when Munster resume their RaboDirect Pro12 title bid away to Cardiff Blues with Keatley ruled out with a groin/hip injury.
Yet already during this campaign, Hanrahan has experienced disaster and then redemption.
Against Edinburgh last month, in the opening pool game of the Heineken Cup campaign at Murrayfield, Hanrahan replaced Keatley in the second half, inheriting a 23-19 lead to protect for an invaluable away win. Alas, his decision to chip his way out of trouble from the edge of Munster’s 22 led directly to a match-winning try for Edinburgh’s Tim Visser as the Scots delivered the shock of the European first round against last season’s semi-finalists.
And so one on-field error of judgment led to an important decision off it.
“When Edinburgh happened, I came off the pitch and I was like, ‘Jesus, that’s a bit of a disaster’ and I obviously let the boys down, made a mistake and we lost the game,” Hanrahan said after training on Tuesday.
“But there’s two ways you could go, sink or swim, and you just have to fight your best to come back out of it again. In the position, as an out-half, you have to try and bounce back every week and then the next opportunity you get, you don’t even think about what’s gone before, it’s a new game.”
That Hanrahan chose to swim had much to do with the encouragement he received in the wake of his Edinburgh woe from scrum-half Conor Murray, who had gone through similar feelings having made a similarly costly error in the previous season’s opening Heineken Cup fixture at Racing Metro.
Murray had been consoled by O’Gara in his darkest hour, but not before a gentle slagging from the veteran fly-half.
“Conor was very similar with me,” Hanrahan said. “I can’t thank him enough. He was brilliant. He came up to me straight after and gave me a smile and a wink, and he was, like, ‘Racing Metro all over again’.
“And straight away, you’re in the dressing room, no one’s talking and it’s a great relief to have someone say something like that, especially Murray, when he’s been through it.”
There were immediate dividends, with head coach Rob Penney showing faith in the young out-half by starting him on the return trip to Scotland a fortnight later for the Pro12 clash with then league leaders Glasgow.
Given the fact Munster had shipped 50 points on their last visit to Scotstoun in March, it was hardly a gentle reintroduction to the sharp end for Hanrahan, but the former IRB World Junior Player of the Year nominee rose to the challenge with a man-of-the-match performance. He scored all his side’s points in a 13-6 win sealed by the only try of the game, a darting run at and around the Glasgow defence with a dazzling array of tricks to wrong-foot and repel his opponents.
“It was massive, a great feeling to do it,” Hanrahan says. “You learn from every experience and Rob talks a lot about taking learnings from experience, and from everybody’s mistakes as well. That was just a full-on mistake and I’ve learned from myself and I’ve come back better for it.”
At 21, Hanrahan may still have much to learn as a fly-half but he is no longer star-struck by the seasoned pros he has to manoeuvre around the pitch.
“Two years ago it hit me one day in training. I wasn’t even playing for Munster, but I said to myself ‘you could sit back here and be in awe of everything or you can get on with it’.
“At the end of the day when you are at 10 you are supposed to be steering the ship and if I was in awe of someone, if I don’t feel confident to say anything to them on the field, then I shouldn’t be there.
“So I had my eureka moment and had to get over it.”
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