Reaping the rewards for waiting his turn
Niall Scannell took a long time to break into the Munster side, but when he arrived, he was ready
It's appropriate that this interview should take place within striking distance of the Dolphin clubhouse. A week earlier, before their AIL win over Old Wesley, Niall Scannell had presented his Ireland jersey to the club who came late enough to his life, but had a positive influence on how he lived it thereafter.
Scannell, 25, is from sporting stock. His late grandfather, Donal O'Sullivan, is part of the GAA fabric in that territory, having played in two All-Ireland football finals for Cork - one as captain; he went on to serve as chairman of the county board. Niall's younger brothers are at different stages of a scenic journey: Rory, Munster centre and already on the radar of the national side; Billy, another hooker, has just picked up a senior schools winners' medal with Pres.
Sometimes, when the genes are good, the brain can transmit a message warning passers-by they are in the presence of greatness. Scannell was captain of the Irish Schools side. Clearly he was a good player, a schools cup-winning captain, and equally Dolphin should have been happy he was hitching his wagon to them rather than Cork Con. And of course they were, for club and school had a coach in common in Steve Ford, who let the lads in Musgrave know the special one was coming.
Picture the scene then: schools star arrives into a firmament where bright and shiny are less attractive qualities than hard and mean. Two injuries up the line meant he was shoved straight into the senior side.
"I'd have had Christy Condon on one side, who'd played a good few years for the Irish Clubs side, and Dave Ryan, who was contracted to Munster, on the other," Scannell recalls. "I was probably letting the lads down every week scrum-wise, and I was hearing about it.
"It was a pretty daunting start, but in hindsight it was a nice baptism of fire to have that much experience around me, particularly scrum-wise. It gave me a massive passion for the scrum, because coming out of school, no joke, I played all three front-row positions in school and I always found hooker easiest scrum-wise. But when I came here, it was: 'Whoa, this is a different level.' That's where it started for me, where I found my style of play, around the AIL, because in school I was always a big player. And then you come in here and I was bottom of the totem pole. You have to go back to your skills. It amplifies what you're deficient in. I learnt quickly enough. I had to, the pressure I was under. So yeah, this is where it all kicked off for me."
Club life being what it is, Dolphin have been as quick to pick him up when he's down as they would have been to put him down in the first place. Moreover, especially for front-rowers, the grit and grind of the AIL reinforces values that are as relevant to the pros as the amateurs. For Scannell the tutorial in that bit would come later, from an Argentinian, by which stage he was having serious doubts about his future with Munster.
The squad he joined through the Academy ranks had a handful of road-blocks ahead of him: Damien Varley, Mike Sherry and Duncan Casey all had far more miles and vouchers than him. Still, when an injury crisis comes along and the coach presses the 'buy in' rather the 'promote from within' button it's not great for morale. Hands up who remembers Quentin MacDonald?
"This is nothing against Quentin: he arrived on a Tuesday and the team was to be announced on Thursday, so I was thinking: 'For the love of God, surely if your man is only off the plane on Tuesday, I'll be in the squad'," Scannell says of the Kiwi's arrival on loan in March 2014. "And I wasn't! He was on the bench. That was the point where I was fourth choice. Fourth choice is due up and they bring in another fella. I was starting to think: 'Do they have any faith me?'"
He still wasn't the chosen one seven months later, at the start of 2014/15 when Rob Penney dialled up another short-term option in Argentinian Eusebio Guinazu. Scannell was bracing himself for the slap in the face with a wet fish. As often happens with emergency purchases, the goods arrive in less-than-average nick. Guinazu was coming off the back of a three-month break. But he didn't need to be match-fit to teach Scannell what he knew. "He was very much, 'Get better at what you're good at'. I used to have sit-downs with Axel [Foley] and I'd look at, for example, Mick Sherry's breakthrough season. He was so dynamic, playing on the edge of that 2-4-2 system, making breaks. He's the starting guy, so you're trying to get like him, but Seb helped me realise, 'That's not you. You're going to be a big scrummager, physical in the tight exchanges. Your breakdown has to be unbelievable, if you want to be a bigger man, you've got to be fit.' He really broke it down with me.
"We had loads of chats and he was brilliant with me. I had a bit more confidence going in to have chats with Axel, the confidence to say: 'Yes, he is good at A but maybe I'm better at B.' That probably comes with growing up a little bit as well. I'm in a small period of reflection after the Six Nations, when you nearly go: 'How did I get here?' That was the pathway, and that's when I kind of tried to find my niche. And Eusebio really helped me. He still keeps in contact with me a lot."
When you consider the staging posts along the way, it's easier to understand why Scannell didn't cost Joe Schmidt a wink of sleep when Rory Best went to bed the night before the Italy game fearing he would not be fit in the morning. As an underage representative player Scannell had been confident and opinionated; as a club player he learned that those traits needed to be backed up; and as a senior pro in waiting he discovered exactly what he could bring to the table.
Two seasons ago London Irish wanted some of what he had to offer - on loan. Munster knocked them back. It's hard to take when you're not getting much of a look-in at home and you're denied the chance of getting one somewhere else. Perhaps the waiting time contributed to him looking so assured on his international debut, in Rome.
It suited him that Ireland wanted to stay narrow in the first 20 minutes and give Italy a battering. Seven carries and 11 tackles in just over an hour on your debut is a decent start. And every dart was on the money in a lineout that returned 100 per cent.
"Other times when you step up, like for your first Pro12 game, and you're thinking 'I'm gonna do this and that'. And I was like that at first when Joe told me I was going to be playing. My mind was racing. You start visualising all these big moments, but then I was: No, if I can just go in and rattle a few breakdowns in the first 20, get my hands on the ball, build into the game, like I always do here, hopefully it'll go alright'. So I was just massively focused on just doing the basics well - getting off the line and making hits. And Andy Farrell's system is quite similar [to Munster's]. He just wants you to put that physical edge on it, so I just went back to basics on it."
In Munster, Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber talk to him about the importance of momentum on both sides of the ball: deliver it when he carries; stop it dead when he's in defence mode. There are any number of factors that go into ticking those boxes, but for a lot of positions on a rugby field it's a handy little compass. And perfect for Scannell.
In a short space of time he has become a team leader, and how Munster will need that in the Aviva on Saturday. In the recent past you'd say Saracens' demolition of Glasgow last weekend suited the Munster cause. It would open the door to the narrative of an English club side coming over here believing their opponents were no more than making up the numbers. Get in, whup them and get out. The story has moved on. It had to.
"I think we took a massive… nearly, pride and bitterness in Munster in the past but this group has got a bit of a fresher outlook in it in terms of, like you have to think you are going to win all the time," Scannell says. "You have to be willing to put yourself out there and put yourself in battles. Simon [Zebo] was talking about it in the media last week, that it's just a lot of our mentality, just put yourself in the battle, and if he beats you he beats you. If you go to smash a fella and he steps around you then you've just got to say, 'He stepped me. One-nil him. We'll go again and hopefully I'll catch him later.' That's the outlook we've brought in.
"If you start taking a massive underdog look at it then you're under pressure, and we probably developed that attitude at the start of the season because we were massive underdogs for everything. So we couldn't start looking at it as this big, bitter 'us against the world', because I think it's just hard to sustain that. You can be bitter for a certain amount of time but for a whole season you can't hate everybody. You can't be bitter against everybody."
How refreshing. Those Dolphin members who don't make the journey up to Dublin on Saturday can congregate in the club bar, and follow the story on TV. Regardless of the outcome, Niall Scannell's jersey on the wall will make the place look all the better.
Sunday Indo Sport