Friday 20 October 2017

Battling for a chance to deliver on underage promise

Former Ireland U-20 hooker revelling in five-way fight for game-time in middle of Munster front-row

Niall Scannell
Niall Scannell

Daragh Small

Niall Scannell played 76 minutes and was captain as Ireland beat a star-studded French side 18-7 to finish fifth in the 2012 U-20 World Championships in South Africa.

From that day's squad Jack Conan, Iain Henderson, Kieran Marmion and Stuart Olding have all gone on to represent their country at senior level, but Scannell believes that all front-rows start at the bottom of the ladder and must bide their time.

That is especially the case with hookers - the 22-year-old is the youngest of five men vying for the Munster No 2 shirt.

Eusebio Guinazu (33), Mike Sherry (26), Duncan Casey (24) and Kevin O'Byrne (23) are all accomplished players with a total of 121 Munster caps between them.

Scannell is also the least experienced, with just six Pro12 appearances in two seasons, but he revels in the competition.

"When you are in a club like Munster you are always going to have competition whether you like it or not. It helps you to go that extra bit with the way you approach the game," he says.

"You have got to be thinking 'I have got to keep doing that as much and more than these lads if I want to get ahead of them'. That is a culture that has been in Munster for a long time.

"For the first year you are probably just happy to be on a senior contract and happy to be involved and the training is a massive step up - you are just trying to adjust to all of that.

"This year you want to be on the pitch more and you start analysing the competition around you, it just brings the best out of you because you know that they are the standards that are in Munster and you have got to be up there if you want to be on the pitch."

February was a month of transition in the province - Damien Varley's shock retirement at the age of 31 was a cruel blow for the player and the club.

That news came as the international contingent were away on Six Nations duty and those left behind felt they needed to step up to preserve their league position.

These were the same squad members that had travelled to Lanzarote for a training camp at the start of last month, and Douglas-born Scannell believes that was a very beneficial trip.

Familiar

"We had a team week in La Santa where I got stuck with Shane Buckley again - unfortunately, he is a fairly familiar face in the rooming scene now!" he laughs.

"We would have roomed together at underage - I could have done better with the old roommate selection there but there was five of us in an apartment.

"So there was myself, Shane, Kevin O'Byrne, my brother Rory and Darren Sweetnam. We actually all played an AIL game on that Saturday so we flew out later than the lads.

"This is only my second year involved with the senior set-up and it was my first time going over there. I found it hugely beneficial being with the lads.

"When you are away like that you are together most of the day and the dynamics of the group change a bit when you take a big chunk out of it.

"It is good to spend time with all the lads in the squad. The fact that we are in Cork and Limerick, it was just good to spend a lot more time with the Limerick lads and I thought it really helped us as a group going into the four-game block.

"We all came together and accepted that we were going to be missing a lot of front-line players on international duty. We have to put our hands up and start raising our standards for these few weeks.

"It is our time now, the group that are here have to stand up."

Paul O'Connell, Peter O'Mahony, Tommy O'Donnell, Conor Murray, Simon Zebo and Felix Jones were all involved in Ireland's great 19-9 success against England.

But the previous night Munster had a huge victory of their own as they claimed a bonus point in their 22-10 win over Glasgow Warriors at Irish Independent Park.

That victory reversed the sides' positions in the table, with Munster now occupying top spot in the Pro12 - they are six points clear of fifth-placed Ospreys with just six rounds remaining.

"Winning the Pro12 is definitely our goal. We are still placed to do that but it is just so tight at the top of that table," says Scannell.

"All the time you are only a couple of losses away from being out of that top six and we are well aware of that.

"It is just a matter of getting the head down, taking it week by week and putting ourselves in the position to be contesting for that at the end of the season."

But outside of the team goal each individual has his own goal and the Dolphin man wants to keep on building with Munster.

"It is about getting better every season. I haven't had that much game-time this season, it's a case of making sure that I put myself in the best place possible after the pre-season next year to be in a position to start games and push on," he explains.

"You don't know really know where you are going to be in a year in this game. It's all about focusing on the short-term goals but that would be the long-term goal.

"Hopefully if I can keep on working and improving that is where I can get to.

"But you just have to keep on taking the opportunity every weekend you get it."

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport