Niall Scannell still doing the hard yards as Munster make final push
Hooker says province must trust in work they have done to get over the line against Saracens
Munster’s Niall Scannell takes on Edinburgh’s WP Nel during the Heineken Champions Cup quarter final at Murrayfield. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Champions Cup semi-finals: Saracens v Munster
Kick off: 3pm, Saturday. Venue: Ricoh Arena. How to follow: The Irish Times liveblog will start from 2.30pm. On TV: BT Sport.
There are Scannells everywhere in the University of Limerick.
That’s an exaggeration.
Rory discharges his media duties in one room, Niall waits patiently in the corridor while there is no sign of the youngest of the three brothers who wear the red of Munster, Billy, a member of the academy and the Ireland Under-20 squad that won the Six Nations Championship Grand Slam.
Rory will partner Chris Farrell is Munster’s midfield at the Ricoh Arena today while his older brother, hooker Niall, will be equally pivotal to the team’s aspirations when they take on Saracens in a Champions Cup semi-final.
Niall got engaged last weekend and then came the confirmation that Ireland captain and hooker Rory Best will retire after the Rugby World Cup, two items that would ordinarily be conversation topics but the 27-year-old’s focus is uncluttered by ancillary considerations. The Saracens match is front and centre in his thoughts.
Experience has taught him to channel his energy maturely in trying to ensure that everything he does on and off the pitch is devoted to becoming a better player. The gung ho enthusiasm of three or four years ago has been moderated. Injury and disappointment have shaped his perspective.
He captained Pres Cork to Munster Schools Senior Cup success, the Ireland Under-20 team in the World Junior Championship in South Africa, made his Munster debut in the 2013-2014 season, progressing each year to play a more central role in the first team and then in February 2017 was rewarded with the first of 14 Ireland caps when starting in the absence of the injured Best against Italy.
He played in four of Ireland’s five matches in that Six Nations Championship, all three Tests, including two starts, during the summer tour to the USA and Japan before a succession of injuries laid waste to the 2017-2018 season. So he missed out on the November internationals and the Grand Slam.
I think I had four injuries that were four- to eight-week timeframes
Originally overlooked for Ireland’s tour to Australia last summer, Best’s hamstring injury saw him called up to the travelling party. He muscled his way into the starting team for the second and third Tests, winning a further five caps between the November Tests and the recent Six Nations as he clambered past Sean Cronin in the pecking order.
This season he’s played 15 matches for Munster, 13 in the starting team, including six of seven matches in the Champions Cup and compiling an impressive highlights reel in the process. Sitting in the University of Limerick, Scannell explained why he considered the ‘lost season’ beneficial to his development as a player.
“I think I had four injuries that were four- to eight-week timeframes; so they are not bad but when you add them all together that is most of your season gone. They weren’t down to things I was or wasn’t doing, they were contact injuries and you just have to take them on the chin. I probably came out of it a better athlete, was able to review things in different areas of my game,” he says.
“It was good for me mentally. I didn’t see that at the time. I think I am a better player. All players get injuries in their careers and I was lucky. I played two years before that pretty much every game without any injury problems. There is no bitterness but there were times especially around the third or fourth injury where you are wondering why this keeps happening.
“That’s probably a curve I was on and I am happy to come out the other side of it. If I am ever on it again in my career, I will be able to see the light a bit better.”
Scannell has spent time refining his body shape, dropping from 114 to 107 kilos, taking up yoga and fostering a greater appreciation of the specific rather than generic gym work required to enhance his performance on the pitch.
“The guys who have the greatest longevity, apart from a few outliers, are those that do the most off the pitch.
“I do a lot of mobility work; I try and do yoga when I can. In the gym it is being aware of what does and doesn’t suit you. Now, I can put my pride aside and say ‘that exercise isn’t for me,’ whereas when you are younger you want a crack off everything.”
Munster return to Coventry, the venue for their last victory in a European semi-final in 2008, coincidentally against Saracens. Since then they have endured a run of six successive defeats at the penultimate stage of the tournament – context is required in pointing out that four of those games took place in France – including a loss to the English club at the Aviva Stadium two years ago.
Johann van Graan’s squad sifted through the usable remnants of that defeat and discarded everything else. Munster won’t wear an inferiority complex but acknowledge the difficulty of the task. As Scannell observed, Saracens possess physical size and athleticism, are well drilled, disciplined and if given their head in attack, are nearly impossible to contain.
An aggressive defence makes it claustrophobic for opponents; Munster need to check that line speed, by being accurate, decisive and varying the point of attack. Scannell explained: “Everyone saw in the Aviva [two years ago] that we kicked too much ball to them, we couldn’t contain their momentum so we are not going to shy away from that; we know what we have to do differently this time.
“I can say that and everyone knows that but it is doing it differently that is the hard part. We have to really impose our game physically because two years ago we maybe let them dictate the game too much. That’s a lesson learned. We are not the team that we were two years ago. We would be foolish to think they are; we have both evolved massively.”
Scannell is noted for his set piece excellence in scrum and lineout but has been tacking on other elements. Ireland coach Joe Schmidt charged him with looking to improve his carrying and effectiveness in open play and the hooker believes he has been diligent in taking direction.
“I think I have been getting on the ball more in open play. I have tried to add little bits to my game regarding my footwork and handling. It’s a real balance of bringing new things to the game and improving what you are good at.
“There are certain things that other hookers here and around the country are better at; I’ll keep trying to chase them in those departments but first and foremost it’s about delivering on the things that I promised I would bring to the team and that’s usually around the set pieces. Outside of that my breakdown work has got to be top quality and my tackle entry has to be right up there.
“I pride myself on all those physical aspects and they are probably not the things that are spoken about too much or seen too much but I like to think that is somewhere that I can take the workload off my teammates. Carrying is one area that stands out; if you don’t have 15 or 16 carries in a game people notice that.
If I am selected then I am selected, if not then at least I gave it everything for the year
“My point of difference [to other hookers] is probably around the scrum and lineout stuff and that is why I work so hard at it and will continue to do so but you can’t be 20 per cent worse than what the other guys are good at.”
Munster and Ireland are intertwined in terms of his ambition for 2019; playing well in a red jersey is a conduit to a green one and a trip to the Rugby World Cup in Japan. He says: “If I am selected then I am selected, if not then at least I gave it everything for the year.
“I think most of us are in that position, apart from the lucky few who if they’re fit are definitely going. Unfortunately that’s not me. I am in the scenario where I know I have to keep performing,” a resolution that will first be road tested in Munster colours at the Ricoh Arena, the semi-final blotting out all other concerns.
“I know how much effort I put in last year, it wasn’t good enough, so I needed to put in more to get sharper and that is the approach that I have taken. In weeks like this you leave no stone unturned in terms of your analysis but you just have to trust that you have bottled that loss from last year [in a semi-final against Racing 92] and it has motivated us to work hard at every session; not just this week.
“We have to trust in what we have done to get us over the line.”
In every sense.