A lot on Hanrahan’s shoulders as Van Graan aims for a power game

With Carbery still out, Munster coach needs to field all his big weapons against Leinster

JJ Hanrahan kicks a conversion during the Pro14 match between Munster and Scarlets at Thomond Park, Limerick in February. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

JJ Hanrahan kicks a conversion during the Pro14 match between Munster and Scarlets at Thomond Park, Limerick in February. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

 

Johann van Graan – whose success as Munster coach appears as reliant on Joey Carbery as Declan Kidney’s was on Ronan O’Gara – has been given all the pieces to the puzzle.

Unfortunately, luck is not for sale.

Van Graan was genuine when stating the 24-year-old will be looked after “every step of the way” after the latest ankle setback. On Carbery’s arrival in Limerick, more than two years ago, the South African made an instant connection with his gifted outhalf.

There is no reason to doubt he cares about the man as much as the team. But consider the five-year waiting game Munster honourably played around Tyler Bleyendaal. Such levels of decency in professional sport are costly. From a purely business standpoint, it is safe to assume the back office is peeking into the market for a short-term fix, if not a longer-term solution.

This all sounds harsh on JJ Hanrahan. All of a sudden the Kerry man is the “franchise quarterback”. Proof that this an idea Munster refused to embrace, until now, comes in the recruitment of Bleyendaal and later Carbery.

RG Snyman is about to make the pack look very South African and incredibly menacing. Jean Kleyn and CJ Stander have naturalised into Irish internationals, but imagine Arno Botha or Chris Cloete and Keynan Knox also muscling into the starting XV. That would leave room for Peter O’Mahony and a pair of local frontrowers.

Only the medics, coaches and Carbery know how much, if any, additional damage was done to the ankle in Japan

Nobody will be complaining when Van Graan fields all the weapons needed for the power game he has always sought to unfurl. Especially Hanrahan. After all the 28-year-old has been through – shooting the lights out in South Africa when replacing Paddy Jackson at an Under-20s World Cup before an underwhelming stint with Northampton – the pressure to gain and hold the 10 jersey evaporated when one word reverberated around the University of Limerick this week.

‘Indefinite’

Carbery needs an “indefinite” time period to mend the ankle he initially injured at the Aviva stadium in August 2019. His last run for Ireland was the 46-14 defeat to New Zealand in Tokyo just two months after the initial injury.

The Athy native – of Kiwi extraction – returned to make one start for Munster last January against Ulster, but wrist ligaments forced more surgery.

Only the medics, coaches and Carbery know how much, if any, additional damage was done to the ankle in Japan. What we do know is his brief glimpses of pure magic in the red jersey remain the standard Hanrahan must aspire towards.

Once upon a time Hanrahan might have expected to enter his prime years as the starting Munster outhalf, but he never dreamed of driving such a gargantuan pack around the field or having Damian de Allende punching holes off his shoulder.

It’s the opportunity of a lifetime.

We shall also learn if the Munster system can handle the furnace heat that at least one from Ben Healy, Jake Flannery and Jack Crowley will be exposed to.

“All options will remain on the table,” said the head coach, who turned 40 during lockdown. “As always, we’ll look to fill within first and then we’ll be in constant communication with David Nucifora as to the future, but in terms of what’s coming short-term, we’re really excited to look at what we have.

“We’ve also Rory Scannell, who has played at 10 for Munster before.”

Scannell is the ultimate club man, as solid a centre with a siege gun boot who should work in tandem with de Allende, but if he becomes the alternative option at outhalf the young trio are clearly not up to scratch. And Munster are in serious trouble.

Bill Johnston looked an even better prospect than Hanrahan at underage, but a lack of minutes saw the Clonmel man switch to Belfast where he sits behind Billy Burns and Ian Madigan. The 23-year-old is by no means out of his depth but, considering Ulster folk are keen to push Mike Lowry into the first team, at fullback or 10, maybe Johnston will be enticed home.

Conversation

All of this depends on how the conversation goes between Nucifora, Van Graan and Stephen Larkham (now he was an outhalf).

The Irish-qualified-only rule appears to be entrenched in the provinces. Each squad gets a pair of world-class operators; a Snyman to match Scott Fardy and Marcell Coetzee, with Nucifora occasionally loosening the purse strings for emergency supplies.

In any other time the loss of Carbery, following Bleyendaal’s early retirement, would force the high performance chief’s hand in order to protect Munster’s investment in Springboks. The rugby agents will come up with a better list, but anyone for some Quade Cooper or giving Dan Carter a final lash at age 38?

A possible effect of Carbery’s continued absence is that the next-best outhalf contracted to a province, who is not playing any rugby, will get some real exposure.

If the goal-kicker isn’t on song, Munster and Van Graan have a problem that threatens the entire masterplan

This will always be Nucifora’s preferred option.

Before the Six Nations, Ireland coach Andy Farrell called up Harry Byrne. Leinster have accepted the loss of Jordi Murphy, Jack McGrath and even Roman Salanoa as tough love, but this might be a body too far. Byrne remains third choice behind big brother Ross and Johnny Sexton, but he is primed to challenge them both in the coming months.

He might even demand the opportunity.

It leaves Hanrahan with back-to-back interpros to exceed the level that years of evidence suggest he cannot attain. If the goal-kicker isn’t on song, Munster and Van Graan have a problem that threatens the entire masterplan. The whole reason for signing Snyman and de Allende was so Carbery, the star, had tools around him to help guide Munster to the Champions Cup in 2021.

Saturday inside the Aviva biosphere offers a clean slate, but Saturday only. Expectations will be instant.

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