Irish rugby players who go abroad to earn their living generally fall into 2 buckets:
- Top class internationals who left at their peak
- Those who were not in line for a central contract and were dispensable to their provinces
The former basket consists of Jonny Sexton – Sexton was pissed off at the union’s slow pace of negotiations two years ago, felt insulted at their initial offer and flounced off to (nouveau riche) Racing. Since then, the Union have upped their game, and have kept the likes of DJ Church, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip in Ireland despite strong French interest – and Sexton himself is returning next season. The Sexton move was a game-changer that left no-one happy and has brought about earlier contractual negotiations, longer contracts and private investment with a goal to keeping the international squad based at home. In 2008, Tommy Bowe left Ulster for the Hairsprays, but at that stage his international career had stalled and Ulster were an utter shambles that he wanted out of.
In the second category, there exists various former internationals who were offered a better contract abroad (Tom Court, Tomas O’Leary), journeyman pros (James Downey, Gareth Steenson) and younger players looking for a new start after their careers stalled at home (Chris Farrell, Adam Macklin, James McKinney, Conor Gilsenan, iHumph). In all these cases, they are players who were not mapped internationally and were expendable to the domestic game.
The potential transfer of JJ Hanrahan from Munster to the Saints, as reported by Gerry yesterday, falls into neither of these buckets. Hanrahan is a former underage (schools and under-20) star who is generally seen as the future in the province – he is clearly behind Sexton, Madigan, Jackson and Keatley right now at international level, but has bags of potential and certainly appears to have the skills to grow into a key player for Munster, and maybe Ireland. But it seems he doesn’t see it that way – he seems to feel he is trapped on the bench and not getting adequate opportunities. As Gerry pointed out, last year he started 11 games at outhalf and came off the bench in every HEC game – this year he has started twice and was left kicking his heels while Munster came a cropper in Thomond last week.
Hanrahan is not only playing second fiddle to Ian Keatley, which we can understand at least even if we don’t always agree with it, but being out of the team at the expense of Denis Hurley is quite another matter – Hurley is a good honest pro, but apart from bashing up the middle, doesn’t offer a huge amount in an attacking sense. Hanrahan has been rooted to the bench, but isn’t even getting used as an impact sub, unlike under Penney last year. It’s been one of the season’s curiosities because, to our eyes at least, Hanrahan has played well when he’s been let on the pitch.
Also since last year, Munster have signed Tyler Bleyendaal, an almost exact replica in positional terms of Hanrahan, Andrew Smith, another bosh it up the middle centre and Pat Howard, a medical joker who got straight into the team. The new head coach, Axel, has talked a good game about moving the ball through the backline and playing creative centres, but has reverted to reductive boshing in the big games – Hanrahan hasn’t got a look in. Being rooted to the bench while Munster trundled the ball backwards against Clermont for 80 minutes must have been galling – he might not have made any difference, but the sight of Plan B being the same as Plan A (bosh it up the middle) must have made him wonder. You sense that Hanrahan just doesn’t fit into Axel’s plans right now. Much has been made of Hanrahan starting the season with an injury, which restricted his gametime in the early part, but it’s December now. He played back-to-back games at 15 against Ulster and the Dragons – last we saw of him he was putting in a classy grubber kick for a try against Dragons – but still they wouldn’t let him on against Clermont.
And now Northampton have come sniffing with an offer (apparently £150k) that would dwarf anything Munster could offer, given general debt levels and the fact that he is seen as a reserve – it’s decent wedge for an essentially unproven player. Hanrahan is clearly a young man in a hurry – he is six months younger than his underage team-mate Paddy Jackson, who has been Ulster starter for two and a half years and has nine Ireland caps, and you wonder does Hanrahan compare himself to Wee PJ. Its a slightly different scenario for a number of reasons – PJ was outhalf for the under-20s when both were in the team – and Jackson also captained the side. PJ was coming from a different place, and Ulster coaches couldn’t wait to start him – he debut-ed just a month after turning 19, almost four years ago. Also, the Ulster jersey fell into PJs lap following some rubbishy performances from iHumph in Munster and Connacht in 2012, after which iHumph left the building, leaving Jackson unopposed as starter. This was both a blessing (allowed him to grow into the jersey without serious competition) and a curse (he effectively immediately became the number three outhalf in Ireland and was parachuted into the national team in non-ideal circumstances with non-ideal results).
Axel responded to Gerry’s story and talked about preparation and injury recovery, which is correct and laudable, but then topped it off by saying “we were considering introducing him at inside centre but Denis Hurley made a couple of breaks”. Talk about depressing – if Hanrahan does leave, you have a smoking gun right there – reductive and conservative rugby in the biggest games where a couple of minor breaks (that we must have missed – even ESPN had Hurley carrying just 5 times for 10 metres) as part of an ineffective gameplan trumps the potential to open the game up and run around Clermont instead of at them. After email-gate was classified as careless, letting the Golden Boy leave for want of opportunities would be a bit of an indictment on Axel’s squad management.
If Hanrahan does move, not only is it a disaster for Munster, where Hanrahan looked the most natural backline talent since
Anto Horgan Keith Earls, but for Ireland, where the model of keeping young players at home and husbanding them through province (Pro12 then HEC/ERCC) to national training squad to national team is being challenged. Our top youngsters taking off to Northampton is not part of the plan. On the bright side, the Saints would not be paying him £150k a year to sit on the bench and give Stephen Myler hugs – he will be getting paid to play for one of the top teams in a league where he will be directly facing some excellent players – game managers like Nuck Evans and “Faz”, creative talents as George Ford, Charlie Hodgson and Danny Cipriani, and also potentially Jimmy Gopperth, who recently killed Bambi.
If he does leave, the best case is that Hanrahan wins the Saints starting jersey and is playing in a team potentially better than any Irish province, and who will be challenging for domestic and European silverware. Joe Schmidt cannot ignore him, he gets called up for Ireland and levers that into a bumper central contract and comes home as Munster starter in 2/3 years. Or, he does a Geordan Murphy and settles down and spends his career in England – his form demands selection and he picks up 50+ caps over a long career. Going further down the outcome chain, he does what a previous Munster prodigy did and spends his career in the Premiership without ever nailing down a place in the Ireland squad – the Jeremy Staunton path. Worst case, he can’t get shirt, sets his career back two years and limps home with his tail between the legs having stalled in his development – this is probably unlikely, he’s clearly talented and ambitious.
This career path is a little bit of an unknown, and carries risks for Irish rugby’s professional development model, but that’s not Hanrahan’s concern – he feels like he has more to offer and isn’t getting the chances at Munster. Nothing’s done yet, and he could yet sign on for Munster. This could all have a happy ending, but even then, it has shone a spotlight on a curious unwillingness to embrace talent over the mundane.