Tuesday 13 November 2018

Front and centre: Niall Scannell making strong case to be Ireland's starting hooker in November

Ahead of November series, Munster hooker looks Best placed to catch Schmidt's eye

Niall Scannell has hit the group running since his return from injury. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Niall Scannell has hit the group running since his return from injury. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

From the disappointment of not making the initial Ireland squad to finishing the tour as first-choice hooker, it was quite the summer for Niall Scannell.

There was a large slice of luck involved for things to pan out as they did for the Munster player, yet Rory Best's hamstring injury could prove to be a seminal moment in Scannell's quest to over take his Ulster counterpart.

Scannell has long been destined for the international stage, only for frustrating injuries to hamper his progress along the way.

Joe Schmidt is a keen admirer and there is no doubt that the 26-year old's stock rose significantly by the end of Ireland's series victory over Australia.

The Kiwi was hugely impressed with Scannell's scrummaging ability, which saw him usurp Sean Cronin on a tour that many expected the Leinster hooker to really stake his claim.

It didn't quite pan out like that for the Limerick native, however, as he had to settle for just one appearance off the bench, with Rob Herring getting the nod for the first Test.

Shoulder surgery following the tour delayed Scannell's start to the season but since returning against Ulster, he has been immense.

His performance in what were incredibly difficult conditions for a hooker in Exeter last weekend should not be under-estimated, with Johann van Graan praising Scannell's impressive form, earlier this week.

"I thought Niall used his opportunity on the Australian tour, I thought he really played well especially that third Test when he got the nod," the Munster head coach said.

"Look, his set-piece is excellent. If you just look at the weekend, that way he threw into that wind. I said it on Saturday as well, people won't understand how difficult it is for key positions. To throw in the ball like that.

"Tadhg (Beirne) called one ball over a jumping pod and Billy (Holland) also called one. To throw the ball like that was exceptional. His scrum is well-renowned. Just look at the way we scrummaged against Leinster, relentlessly.

"What people possibly don't know is the type of team man he is behind the scenes. Asking the right type of questions, preparing well.

"I guess what happens after that with Ireland, that's up to Joe."

For Scannell, it is all about staying fit and maintaining the lofty standards he has set for himself.

By his own admission, he has struggled with injuries but a lot of time was spent working with the Munster medical staff over the summer as he altered some of his training methods.

Looking back on the summer tour, Scannell knows how important it was for his development as he hopes to be Schmidt's main man come the World Cup next year.

"Well, I was obviously incredibly lucky as well with Rory's injury," he admits.

"I kind of landed in there, I hadn't really planned it, and then I wasn't involved in the first week, which made me kinda wonder, 'how much would I be involved in this tour?'

"Then I was starting the next week. I was as surprised as all of you were. Certainly at that point, I realised I need to get confident at this level, I need to take my chance because you don't get too many of them.

"The first game went well, then when I ended up starting the second game, it was huge, just to get those two back-to-back.

"Hopefully I can put my hand up to Joe, but it was a huge year and everyone is going to be scrambling for that hooker spot. You just need to keep building from there."

The Ireland squad for the November series is due to be named on Tuesday, and barring injury, Scannell will be included. The Cork native isn't taking anything for granted, however.

"Rory is number one, the skipper, and the rest of us are probably fighting tooth and nail for that second spot," he says.

"It is a fairly even race at the moment. I just need to keep playing but I did struggle to stay fit last year, and that kinda cost me.

"If I can keep getting games back-to-back, and I know that the position I play, I am not going to go the whole season without bangs and knocks but I just want to try and work hard and keep consistent and fit. I know from last year I am one whack away from (missing out)."

After the tour, Schmidt gave Scannell a couple of key areas of his game to work on, as he does for every player. His main focus is on carrying the ball more often and having a greater impact in open play.

That is an area where Cronin still holds the edge over Scannell but as we saw in June, Schmidt puts a lot of stock in the latter's ability around the set-piece.

For years, Best has been Ireland's unanimous first-choice hooker, but now the captain, who will be 37 by the time Ireland kick off their campaign in Japan, has genuine competition.

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