Hanrahan ready to realise his potential at Saints

JJ Hanrahan feels his best is yet to come at Saints (picture: Sharon Lucey)

JJ Hanrahan feels his best is yet to come at Saints (picture: Sharon Lucey)

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While Saints supporters will need little reminding of their club’s most recent meetings with Leinster, JJ Hanrahan has very different memories of the men in blue.

Having moved to Northampton during the summer of 2015, his only recollections of Saints’ heartbreaking and heroic European matches against Leinster came via the television.

But while he has not featured against them while wearing the green, black and gold, the utility back has plenty of experience of taking on the Dubliners.

Hanrahan came through the Munster Academy and has squared up to Leinster on several occasions while growing up.

Consequently, he has his own up and downs to reflect upon when asked about his personal history against Leinster.

“Between under age, A level and senior level with Munster, I’ve played them quite a few times,” Hanrahan says as he sits in the top row of the south stand during Tuesday’s media gathering.

“It’s almost like two derby games for me, back-to-back. Playing at Leicester is a derby for Northampton and for me growing up, Leinster is a derby match as well.

“Maybe I’m the only one who thinks it’s a derby match, but it’s the way I saw it growing up and they’re a very good outfit.”

And when asked for his best personal memory of playing against Leinster, Hanrahan smiles and says: “There’s probably two. One wouldn’t be so notable.

“We beat them in the British & Irish Cup semi-final in extra-time at Donnybrook and a lot of the boys who are playing in the Leinster team now will have played in that game.

“We pipped them at the post in the 100 minutes and it was an amazing game.

“A lot of the boys in that Munster team, like Peter O’Mahony and Dave Kilcoyne, went on to play for senior team, as did theirs, like Jack McGrath and Noel Reid.

“Then we beat them in the Aviva one year (October 2014) and that was another big one for us.

“I came off the bench at the Aviva and played fly-half, and I played 12 in the other one.”

And what about Hanrahan’s worst Leinster memory? Surely it can’t compare to that heartbreaking Heineken Cup final that Saints lost in 2011 or the 40-7 thrashing at the Gardens in December 2013?

“It was another British & Irish Cup semi-final and we played them at Garryowen at Limerick,” Hanrahan explains.

“I was playing at out-half (fly-half) and I was really happy with my performance- I kicked four from four - and in the last minute we won a scrum five metres out next to the touchline and got a penalty, but I missed a kick to win the game.

“They won and it’s something I don’t like to remember.”

Hanrahan will hope to make happier memories with Saints on Friday night and in the return fixture in Dublin eight days later.

He and his current team-mates are desperate to avoid leaving themselves a mountain to climb as they currently sit bottom of Pool 4 on four points, but just two adrift of table-toppers Leinster.

Though Saints secured a stunning 18-9 win in Dublin three years ago, they know they can’t afford to lose the first game against Leinster again.

And Hanrahan, who watched both of those matches in 2013, despite having his own matters to attend to with Munster against Perpignan, knows what the mission is over the next two weekends.

“We watched the first (Saints-Leinster) game in the team room, way before I knew I would come here, and I remember thinking ‘wow, Leinster are good’,” he said.

“But I watched the one the week after and Northampton completely turned it around, beating them in their own back garden at the Aviva.

“Two teams doing each other over away from home isn’t something you see too often and it was funny how it happened.

“For us now, it’s all about looking after what we can do. We’re on our own patch, in front of the Gardens fans, who have been brilliant for us, and we want to give them something to roar about.

“Getting the win at home is very important for us.”

Hanrahan is happy to be back in action, having sustained an injury at the most frustrating time possible.

He fractured his ankle in the final pre-season match, against Ulster in Belfast.

And his first appearance of his second campaign at Saints came when he was chucked in at the deep end, starting at inside centre at Leicester last Saturday.

“It (the injury) was particularly frustrating because I think this was the best shape I’d ever come back in for pre-season,” Hanrahan said.

“I came back, I was at an ideal weight, my fitness was on target, I was lifting very strong, my fitness was very high and I was buzzing on the ground.

“I felt pretty good at that time of year and I was really looking forward to a big start after last season and to get an injury was a bit annoying to be honest.

“I did a little bit of soul-searching and had a week’s worth of depression but you soon get out of that when your girlfiend gives you a slap for being grumpy.

“I looked at it and it was pretty much the first long-term injury I’d had in my career so to go four and a half years and not pick up any serious injuries is a good thing and hopefully I can now go a long time again without one.”

So how did Hanrahan find being thrown into a white-hot local derby at Welford Road?

“I was available for Worcester away then made the bench for Newcastle so I got two good weeks’ training and then I was happy to start at Leicester,” he said.

“First week back, playing 12 is not a bad place to play because there’s less pressure and you can focus on yourself, whereas if you play 10, you’re running the team from the start of the week and it adds more pressure.

“When you’ve been out for 14 weeks, it’s a nice way to ease yourself into it.”

Hanrahan came through unscathed and though he was disappointed to have been on the losing side in a 19-11 defeat, he knows it was a vital platform to build on in the weeks to come.

And now he is just desperate to show his true colours in a Saints shirt, having felt he didn’t really do himself justice last season.

“Moving countries is a big thing and it probably affected me a bit more than I thought it would,” the 24-year-old said.

“I settled in unbelievably well but the Premiership is a step up in standard and the style of play is a little bit different to what I was used to.

“The competitive nature of week on week was something I’d never done before.

“At home you might have a break, but it was all coming so thick and heavy that it maybe caught me off guard.

“I was really looking forward to starting this season and showing the Saints fans what I could do and trying to help the team, but I had an injury.

“But there’s still a long way to go in the season, so hopefully the best is yet to come.”