JJ Hanrahan has had one of the more curious career stories in modern Irish rugby.
Opportunity has finally started to knock for a truly rare talent, which in turn is finally starting to blossom – the two being entirely connected. Just when it looked like it might never happen for him, it’s about time too.
Until now, for whatever reason, this gifted 27-year-old has never really had the chance.
This is his eighth season as a professional rugby player, but until this season he’d only been afforded a run of three successive games at outhalf twice in his entire career, once with Northampton three seasons ago and in the last three games of the 2017-18 season with Munster. This afternoon’s game will also mark the first time Hanrahan has ever started three Heineken Champions Cup games in a row.
Hanrahan has played 151 competitive games for Munster and Northampton, yet of those games it is mildly astonishing to consider that today will mark only his 49th start in his preferred and best position of outhalf. He has undoubtedly paid for his natural ability and versatility as a footballer, starting 13 games at ‘12’, nine at fullback and a whopping 81 on the bench. He must detest that number 22 jersey.
Irish rugby doesn't tend to produce too many nominees for Under-20 World Player of the Year, Hanrahan being on the shortlist of just three when Jan Serfontein scooped the award in 2012. The contrasting career paths of Under-20 team-mates such as Tadhg Beirne, Iain Henderson, Jack Conan, Luke McGrath, Kieran Marmion, Jack Carty and others can only have added to Hanrahan's frustration.
Along with a few others in the Irish rugby fraternity, Hanrahan hails from Currow in Kerry.
"JJ grew up only 200 yards from where I live," says former Munster and Ireland legend Mick Galwey. "Moss Keane was up the other way and the Doyles, Mick and Tom, were down the road. It's a small little town but there's a great old tradition there.
“He did boxing in Knocknagoshel because his mother came from there and Knocknagoshel was always considered a good place for boxing,” says Galwey. “He played soccer in Tralee and not only did he play Gaelic football for Currow, but he played for the Kerry U-16s, mostly in midfield but sometimes at the back.
“All along, he was playing rugby for Castleisland and he was spotted and ended up in Rockwell. I remember that [Castleisland] under-16 team. I think they won a Munster final and then lost an All-Ireland semi-final.”
Galwey helped out regularly in large part because his nephew, Sean McCarthy, was there as well. “Sean played with JJ all the way through to the Irish Under-20s, and they’re both from Currow.”
Of Hanrahan, Galwey simply says: “He had it all. I suppose most of all what he had was a natural boot. I wouldn’t say he was raw, but he had a lot to learn about the game, but that comes with time, especially in a position like that.
“JJ was the star of the team. JJ was the man, there’s no doubt about that. He had a super boot on him. He certainly was a natural talent and an all-round talented sportsman, and those things stand to you, I’ll always believe that.”
At Rockwell, Hanrahan augmented three earlier penalties by landing a drop goal with the last kick of the game in the 11th minute of injury time to earn them a Munster Schools Senior Cup semi-final win by 12-10 over Castletroy College. They lost the final to PBC Cork.
After coming through the schools and underage ranks, Hanrahan made a big impression with the Irish Under-20s under Mike Ruddock. Initially, Hanrahan played at inside centre in the 2012 Under-20 Six Nations, with Paddy Jackson the first-choice outhalf. Ireland won their first four games before losing away to England.
Ulster and the IRFU decreed that Jackson would be better served having a full pre-season with the province as a stepping stone to immediately becoming their first-choice outhalf. Hence, he was not made available for the Under-20 Junior World Championships in South Africa.
“Suddenly I didn’t have my outhalf for the World Cup,” recalls Ruddock. “So I moved JJ to ‘10’ and he just took off. In fact we beat South Africa [23-19, Hanrahan kicking 13 points] in the first game, and were the only team to beat South Africa in the whole tournament, and JJ was outstanding all the way through. JJ stepped into the position and just got on with it superbly. We didn’t miss a heartbeat really. He was class.
“I like an outside half who always takes that first step forward. Obviously, if he’s doing a play where he has to run across and switch, or do a scissors-type play, then he’ll start to drift a bit earlier onto the ball. But I like a ‘10’ who keeps his hips square, gets flat, takes the ball to the line, and has got the ability to play it across the face to other players, or pull it back to a deeper ‘12’.
I suppose the biggest thing I saw in him was his rugby brain
“He gave me that, exactly what I wanted, and he was strong enough as well to play 12, so if he did a bit of a show and go, he could always get beyond the tackle, and we could flood that channel.
“But I suppose the biggest thing I saw in him was his rugby brain. He had a really good kicking game in terms of knowing when to kick, when not to kick, where the space was, and how effective he could be with his kicking game.
“He had the option of using two or three different type of kicking styles, grubbers, chips and longer kicks out of hand. And if I remember he nailed all his goal kicks.
“On the other side of the ball, he was a big solid lad who made his tackles as well. He was a good first-up tackler for us. He gave us a lot of stability there in defence.”
After losing again to England but thrashing Italy, when Carty deputised for Hanrahan, the latter returned for the revenge win over England to finish fifth.
“I remember saying to a couple of journalists who asked me about the tournament that I thought JJ would kick on really well. It sort of stalled for him for a while, didn’t it?”
Yet Hanrahan’s timing seemed perfect, for his first season (2012-13) in the senior Munster squad coincided with Ronan O’Gara’s last. He made his Munster debut at the age of 20, making 11 appearances in total. The following two seasons were similar, 11 starts in each but increasingly across three positions, and a further 31 off the bench.
His first and sole start in the Heineken Champions Cup was at inside centre away to Clermont, and with that, before both his 23rd birthday and the end of the season, he made the decision to join Northampton.
This demonstrated how strong-willed and independently-minded Hanrahan has been, even from a young age, and he has maintained that the two-year sojourn to the English east midlands was beneficial for his career.
However, it was not an overwhelming success. There were seven starts at outhalf in the first season, and 21 with that '22' on his back, and with Stephen Myler again generally preferred, of Hanrahan's eight starts in his second season there, half a dozen were at inside centre.
In his first season back with Munster, Hanrahan was not only competing with Ian Keatley again, but Tyler Bleyendaal as well. Of his dozen starts, the nine at outhalf were all in the Pro14, whereupon Carbery's arrival added to the logjam at '10' last season.
An eye-off-the-ball howler in an early season defeat in Glasgow set Hanrahan back further, before he was afforded his first start at ‘10’ in the Heineken Cup against Castres after Carbery was a late withdrawal. Hanrahan scored a try and kicked six from six in a 20-point man-of-the-match haul, but when Carbery returned for the rematch a week later, Hanrahan was back on the bench.
So, in other words, this run of three games triples his number of matches at ‘10’ in the Heineken Cup before this season.
Ruddock does not pretend to explain why Hanrahan’s career did not kick on as he had anticipated, although he points to all the transitioning in coaching personnel over recent seasons. But he remains a tad confused by the primary criticism of Hanrahan, namely his game management.
“Well, I have to challenge that because that was exactly what I saw from him when he played for the Under-20s. The evidence is there. You don’t beat South Africa, France and England, without having a good ‘10’ doing the right things at the right time. So I would challenge that. Perhaps, again, different styles, different coaches, different things – whatever – I don’t know.”
This past while, for the first time really, circumstances have fallen Hanrahan's way, primarily in the latest misfortunes to befall Carbery and Bleyendaal, and in having the former World Cup-winning outhalf Stephen Larkham infusing him with confidence and adopting a style of play that utilises the outhalf's strengths.
“He’s playing pretty flat and bringing people onto the ball, squaring up, the kind of outhalf play that Stephen Larkham would be promoting down there given his background in Australian rugby and the way he played,” says Ruddock.
“Having options off JJ makes him very dangerous. If he’s got shadow trailer runners coming off him and he’s got options to hit across the face, and if there’s lots of things going on around him, lots of people coming into the view of defenders, JJ is strong enough to go himself.
“I really think JJ has got those skills, and he’s got all the kicking game. Like, he’s a Kerry boy from a GAA background, and he has natural kicking instincts. Look, I’m a big fan. I’ve always been a big fan. It has been a bit of a shock to me that his career hasn’t kicked on.”
It could be that Carbery returns to fitness before long and reclaims the '10' jersey, but as things stand Hanrahan is the man in possession. And another way of looking at it, all the leading Irish outhalves in the professional era, Eric Elwood, David Humphreys, Ronan O'Gara and Johnny Sexton, played some of their best rugby in their 30s.
Specifically with Sexton in mind, Ruddock points out “that’s the benefit of modern training, diet, game management, medical back-up – these guys are so well looked after”.
The cards having fallen his way, Hanrahan is playing the best rugby of his career.
“This game is all about luck,” says Galwey. “You can be in or out, there can be good or bad times, and it’s all about being in the right place at the right time. JJ hasn’t got the international recognition we’d all like him to get but hopefully that will come.
“I know the competition is hot and heavy but that’s what you have to strive for. He’s lucky enough to be in position now and he has to make the most of it.”
Hanrahan's performance against Racing a fortnight ago was arguably his best in a Munster jersey, the only pity being that he didn't augment his try-scoring double skip pass to Andrew Conway and touchline conversion to draw the sides level with his ensuing drop goal attempt. That would have been his O'Gara/Sexton moment.
“It would have been great for JJ, for his confidence and his career, to have got that drop goal,” says Galwey. “But I’m sure, knowing JJ, he’s put that to the back of his head now, and I though he played very well again last week.
“This game away against Saracens is defining for Munster. It doesn’t necessarily have to be defining for JJ but more of the same would certainly help him along the way.”