MUNSTER ARE IN the enviable position of having a selection headache in the position many regard as the most important in rugby.
Two competitive fixtures into the season and already both Ian Keatley and JJ Hanrahan have shown their qualities at outhalf for Rob Penney’s side. While the former remains the favourite to begin Munster’s Heineken Cup campaign as first-choice, it’s worth taking a look at what each player offers.
Starting with the young pretender, Hanrahan is a gifted playmaker. His passing last weekend against Zebre was superb, and it’s clearly something he has been focusing on in training. The power the 21-year-old generates is impressive, and he uses very little draw-back before releasing his passes.
That means Hanrahan invariably draws in at least one defender and also that the opposition defence can’t make a decision until the last moment about which potential ball carrier to mark. Within the patterns Penney likes his side to use, Hanrahan’s distribution is a big advantage. It allows Munster to go wide accurately with speed, and also keeps the defence guessing.
Another strength of Hanrahan’s is his try-scoring threat. While he hasn’t dotted down after any spectacular runs from his own half yet, he has displayed the ability to be ‘in the right place at the right time’. We have seen Hanrahan finishing moves from close range and dotting down to reward the excellent work of others.
This habit highlights Hanrahan’s awareness and vision. He is perceptive enough to take advantage of small gaps in the opposition defence at the same time as reading his teammates’ attacking intentions.
His try against Edinburgh in the first round of the PRO12 this season is a fine example (video below).
With seemingly nothing on, Hanrahan recognises that scrumhalf Sheridan is going to burst sideways before straightening up. The Kerry native changes his own running line to benefit from Sheridan’s smart play. It’s simple but extremely effective.
The time Hanrahan has spent playing in the centre has certainly helped to develop his ability to spot holes in the defence and change his focus accordingly.
YouTube credit: RaboDirect PRO12
Keatley possesses some of the same strengths as Hanrahan in being an accomplished passer and a line-breaking threat. The former Connacht outhalf’s ability to cut through defences is aided by dynamic power. While Hanrahan relies on his footwork more often, Keatley has the strength to break through weak tackles.
Again, this is key to tying in would-be tacklers and it also allows his centres more space to create something. Casey Lualala is at his most effective when he has a hint of space to turn on his spectacular ability to burst to either side of defenders, and he definitely benefits from Keatley’s presence in the team.
Keatley’s try last weekend against Zebre was a fine example of his strength on the ball. While he did display a decent shuffle of the feet, it was his power and determination that took him through two (admittedly weak) tackles to score.
YouTube credit: RaboDirect PRO12
The Dubliner is robustly-built and it also helps in defence. Munster’s 10 channel has long been an area that opposition have targeted to get over the gain line, but Keatley has the physical attributes to change that. Outhalves are rarely known for their big hits but at 26, Keatley has ability to make himself a defensive pillar for Munster.
Kicking from the tee is obviously a vital part of the outhalf’s role, and a duty which Keatley performed well last season. His 78% success rate was the seventh-best in the PRO12 and he has kicked solidly under pressure before. That certainly gives him an advantage over Hanrahan, whose place-kicking hasn’t faced a high-profile test yet.
That said, Hanrahan does appear to have settled on a consistent technique when kicking at goal. Whatever about mental capabilities in big games, a reliable and repeated routine is a huge part of place-kicking success and the 21-year-old looks to be very comfortable with his current set-up.
Keatley’s greater experience means he is the obvious leader in the race for Munster’s outhalf jersey. Hanrahan is clearly a player of huge potential but he is relatively untested in difficult circumstances. For a coach like Penney, who faces a crucial season with Munster, it is entirely natural to back the older player.
In this case, the older player is no veteran. Keatley himself is still improving and his performance in the PRO12 opener against Edinburgh two weeks ago suggested he is increasingly comfortable directing Munster around the pitch. His game sense increases with every minute on the pitch and he is taking the best option between pass/run/kick far more often than earlier in his career.
While the relative weakness of the opposition so far must be taken into account, the early signs are that the outhalf battle envisaged by many at Munster is certainly going to develop over the course of the season. It should be fascinating to follow.
So who do you think is ahead in the competition for Munster’s number 10 jersey? Would you go for the experience, power and game management of Keatley or the youth, vision and creativity of Hanrahan?