Thursday 14 December 2017

Scannell's butterflies in perfect formation

Niall Scannell: ‘We didn’t fluke it. We finished top of the table and I think we need to keep telling ourselves that.’ Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Niall Scannell: ‘We didn’t fluke it. We finished top of the table and I think we need to keep telling ourselves that.’ Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Strange how some folk in the head department come into sport and incessantly drill their incessant message of impending doom.

"FEAR OF FAILURE!" they will daub on whiteboards or incant on your iPod for a handsome hourly sum; all to remind you of the direst consequences of losing a game of ball. Scare you half to death. Then again, so much modern teaching requires that fear is necessary. Stops you being scared.

Far better, one would have thought, to be excited by the anticipation and joy of winning much more than the scarifying implications of losing?

Niall Scannell knows his answer.

This time 12 months ago, he and his colleagues, so harsh and critical and down on themselves all year, were still self-flagellating in the season's final throes as they faced their weekly challenge to merely qualify for the Champions Cup.

Now, liberated and anxiety-free, Scannell and his friends prepare for a Guinness PRO12 final with the butterflies gathering in perfect flying formation within their proud chests.

"Excitement," chirps the hooker who emerged to national prominence during the Six Nations, following a sturdy Rome debut with a triptych of tidy cameos.

"I'm a bit giddy myself and I had to take a deep breath coming in front of you, I didn't want to be too giddy and say mad stuff altogether. But it is exciting.

"Last year was real pressure where you have to win just to get into Europe whereas this is exciting pressure.

"It's enjoyment. We want to go do it. This is where we wanted to be. We have to get a big performance out of ourselves but it's a different pressure.

"Last year was really, really tough going into those games. I was in knots in my stomach with nerves.

"We didn't want to be there but we were there and I think it definitely gave us a bit of experience in that area of dealing with pressure and nerves."

And last year, even when their season was all over, they still had to train while others prepared for Champions Cup and PRO12 knock-out games.

There was no pressure for there was nothing to play for as they fulfilled the interminably month-long routine of training during the week for a weekend that offered merely an empty hole.

"What we used to do was train until a set date, so we could book holidays and stuff," he recalls. "They are the worst weeks of the year. You are just teetering and just watching the games.

"You think, 'what if?' The thing about last year was that we were not close to the PRO12 semi-finals.

"We weren't close to the final of course, either, so there wasn't a huge amount of what-ifs, just more frustration at games that we let slip away at different times in that season.

"There has been a massive turnaround and it is massively exciting too. It would certainly be nice to top off this season on Saturday with a win."

There is nowhere else they would rather be so there is no other feeling required than to be energised by the prospect, rather than being weighed down by any burden.

The perspective of a fraught season informs them all that these moments need to be enjoyed, not endured.

"When you start to get nervous about a big game like Saturday, you can reassure yourself that this is where you wanted to be and acknowledge where we have come from too," he concurs.


"When you start to get those nerves, like, this is where we wanted to be and we have worked hard for that. I think sometimes, it can be an Irish thing, that sometimes we find it hard to say, yes, we deserve to be in this final.

"But we have been consistent all season. We didn't fluke it. We finished top of the table and I think we need to keep telling ourselves that. We just have to say, this is exciting, we have worked hard to be here and give ourselves every chance to get a win on Saturday."

For Scannell, it would represent another seasonal high following on from his Irish debut spring; he suspends the hope of more to follow this summer.

Unlike what the pop psychologists may say, he is fully aware of what he can and cannot do.

"I have never been in a final environment, but I think I am probably a bit more assured around the things that I am good at," he said. "I have probably taken on board this year that different hookers offer different things.

"If you take me and Rhy Marshall, for example, he is going to bring a huge amount on the attacking side of the ball, he is very dynamic. Then I have to just realise that around set-piece, that is my kind of area and I have to make sure that I get that right.

"That is probably something I'm good at. Then, in the pre-season, I can take a step back and look at a lot of weaknesses I want to work on and pick a few of those out and try and build on them."

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