Munster’s position as one of European rugby’s movers and shakers came under renewed pressure yesterday as the province lost its fight to keep rising homegrown star JJ Hanrahan.
The 22-year-old out-half will join England’s reigning champions Northampton Saints next summer having turned down an enhanced deal to stay with his native province and compete with Ian Keatley for the Number 10 jersey he coveted most.
Hanrahan’s decision was communicated initially by Saints on the day when Munster had hoped its announcement of a new two-year contract for Keatley as well as deals for younger players Cian Bohane, Shane Buckley, Kevin O’Byrne and Jack O’Donoghue would hit the rugby headlines.
Instead, also on a day when former scrum-half Tomás O’Leary was linked with a return to the province next season, it was the departure of perhaps its most exciting creative talent in years that overtook the news cycle.
Munster confirmed Hanrahan’s impending exit with chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald saying: “We have done everything possible in looking to retain such a skilful player and offered a highly competitive package in the process. Unfortunately the decision is out of our hands.
“We would like to wish JJ all the best, he is a talented player with a very bright future ahead of him.”
That Munster will be unable to benefit from that very bright future will be particularly galling for those both within the provincial set-up, who believed they have been nurturing a potentially world-class talent, and outside of it who were hoping to cheer Hanrahan on to greatness and will wonder how he was allowed to leave.
When word reached Fitzgerald and head coach Anthony Foley that Northampton, amongst others, were making plays for Hanrahan, they renewed their efforts with an improved contract offer while the player’s limited game time before Christmas, which saw him start just three times at fly-half, twice at full-back and twice at inside centre, was explained away as a measured reintegration to the team following a pre-season injury.
It was clearly not enough to persuade the former Junior World Player of the Year nominee he had a long-term future at home and yesterday his decision to move on was made public.
Team-mate Felix Jones said Hanrahan was doing what was right for him, telling RTÉ 2fm’s Game On last night: “It’s obviously massively disappointing, and JJ’s a close friend, to see JJ go somewhere but he has his reason why he wants to go no-one would begrudge him and everyone would wish him well. He’s a great player and any club would be lucky to have him.
“On the flip side of it we’ve got some great guys coming through and with Keats signing on again and the likes of Jack O’Donoghue, we’ve got some serious guys coming through, but look, it must have been a very difficult decision for JJ. He’s a very proud Kerryman, a proud Munster man and you grow up dreaming to play for your province but unfortunately professional sport sometimes, things just don’t work out the way you might have initially thought.
“I’m not trying to say... you know, professional sport is what it is, JJ needs to do what’s best for JJ.”
In a statement issued through Munster, Hanrahan said: “I have thought long and hard about this decision, and as difficult as it is to leave I believe it is the right step to take for my future progression. Growing up, Munster was all I knew and I will certainly miss it. I am very fortunate to have represented this club and team but I need to do what is best for me and avail of the next opportunity.”
Northampton director of rugby Jim Mallinder emphasised Hanrahan was “a tremendous prospect,” he would watch “develop over the coming years at Franklin’s Gardens” while the player himself said he was “excited by the challenge that awaits me at Northampton Saints.”
With New Zealander Tyler Bleyendaal due to finally join Munster from Crusaders later this month to complete his rehabilitation from a serious neck injury, Keatley will not be given a free ride at fly-half, with Cork-born Johnny Holland having also seen first-team action at No.10 this season.
Keatley joined from Connacht in 2011 and yesterday signed a two-year contract that will keep him at Munster until at least June 2017, when he will have just turned 30. Keatley’s early season form included a Champions Cup game-winning drop goal against Sale Sharks and saw him earn a Test cap against Georgia.
Foley said of his first-choice fly-half: “Ian continues to grow and impress. He leads by example with his commitment and attitude and we are fortunate to have him in our side.”
Foley used the deals for centre Bohane, back-rowers Buckley and O’Donoghue and hooker O’Byrne to praise players who wanted to “contribute to their home province and compete for the jersey”, without referencing the one who got away.
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