Wednesday 21 August 2019

'It's not a time to take your foot off the gas, it's close now'

Big Interview: Niall Scannell

Andrew Conway congratulates Billy Holland after the Benetton win. Photo: Sportsfile
Andrew Conway congratulates Billy Holland after the Benetton win. Photo: Sportsfile

Teeing it up down in Fota Island on Tuesday afternoon, Niall Scannell had a couple of hours to take stock and focus on something other than rugby.

It has been a gruelling campaign for the 27-year-old Munster hooker, but 23 appearances later he has the most important game on the horizon.

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Niall Scannell alone with his thoughts in training this week. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Niall Scannell alone with his thoughts in training this week. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Munster took on Leinster in a Guinness PRO14 semi-final last year and lost in the RDS. Back in Dublin on May 18, it will an intense struggle for all concerned.

Five of Scannell's appearances this season have come in Ireland green, and his opposite number, Seán Cronin, will look to impress against his international rival in this massive semi-final.

The 2019 Rugby World Cup is just around the corner, and with Rory Best looking set to lead Ireland in Japan, Scannell and Cronin will both be desperate to secure their places on the plane.

A lot can happen between now and September 22 when Ireland clash with Scotland in Yokohama. But there might not be a lot of game-time for the players to stake a claim.

"It's about keeping your eyes on the prize in terms of the PRO14 at the moment," says Scannell.

"Our season is by no means finished and we have to kick on there. That is our number-one focus.

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"In terms of that gym work and prep, you have to keep ticking over on that but at the end of the day it is going to be a huge summer.

"If I'm selected to go into camp in pre-season it is going to be huge going into a World Cup. I am excited and I hope I do get selected, and if I do you have got to be ready to go.

"It's not a time to take your foot off the gas, it's close now. I would be lying if I said it wasn't there in the background.

"Potentially with Munster, I might only have just two more games to put my best foot forward this year."

Munster are just delighted to be in a position where they have a chance to qualify for their first major final since 2017. They haven't won anything since their league triumph eight years ago.

But last weekend they showed the heart and determination of old when JJ Hanrahan landed a late penalty to grind out a 15-13 win.


"Benetton just have such physical ball-carriers," says Scannell.

"When they get going forward and they start offloading, you are defending that same channel the whole time.

"It's something that not a lot of teams in the league do. It is probably a bit different to what we are seeing week in, week out.

"We weren't sitting pretty against them. We had a lot of chances in the first 20 minutes. We let our composure go for a bit. We should have just kept doing what we were doing.

"We got a bit panicked and Treviso took the impetus. They will feel hard done by. They had a few opportunities and we snuck it.

"If you look back at a lot of teams that have won trophies, that is the case. They get a few lucky bounces. We will count ourselves lucky that we got over that. Hopefully we can do a job against Leinster and kick on and win something."

Scannell has had a huge battle with Rhys Marshall for the starting hooker's shirt in Munster, but injury to the New Zealand native has meant he has perhaps seen a little more game-time than expected of late.

But Munster have an embarrassment of riches in that position with Kevin O'Byrne performing well this season and Mike Sherry driving standards too.

But now for Scannell and his colleagues, all of Munster's attentions turn to the semi-finals while their opponents have a Champions Cup final to prepare for.

Leinster face Saracens this weekend in the Champions Cup final with Scannell and his team-mates taking notes, looking to gain any potential advantage on Leo Cullen's men.

A lot will come down to the set-piece while Leinster hooker Cronin offers plenty in the loose too.

"His talents are fairly obvious," says Scannell.

"He is up for European Player of the Year. His ball-carrying is second to none in the league and he has shown it in Europe too.

"It is a challenge we have to prepare for. He is just a phenomenally physical guy. We are definitely going to have to be prepared for him. Unfortunately for us, he is one of many that Leinster have.

"He is just another threat, especially in those wider channels. He is a hooker as well but from my point of view there won't be any individual thing there.

"There is a lot of those kind of players that Leinster have, and that is the threats we are going to contain."

Munster have been crying out for some success in recent years and the pain of another Champions Cup semi-final defeat to Saracens has been dulled by victories over Connacht and Benetton Rugby in the PRO14.

But Leinster will be another level up and Scannell is aware of the magnitude of what is at stake.

"It is huge, of those ones that we beat Leinster this year, but our record against them in the last three or four years isn't great," he says.

"People realise at this stage of the season you have to beat the best to win it. That is the standard they have set now and they are in a Champions Cup final this weekend.


"We will go to Dublin fully intent on getting a win. We are hugely hungry to win something. We have to produce the goods on the day and back up the performance we had at Thomond Park earlier in the year.

"A few guys are performing very well for them. The likes of James Lowe, we can really help ourselves preparing for those kind of players. Johnny Sexton is back from injury and he was outstanding the last day in their semi-final against Toulouse.

"That kind of individual prep will help us get a handle on how they play in general. We have played against them so much but our record isn't that strong.

"Knowing what they are going to do is one thing and stopping it is another. We have a huge amount of prep work to put in. There will be a lot done on laptops for the few days.

"At this stage of the season physically in terms of in the gym and on the pitch there isn't a lot you can get out of these few weeks so we have to get on the laptops and see what we can do there."

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