Sunday 19 November 2017

'We have the feeling now that we can mix it with anyone'

The Big Interview: Niall Scannell

Niall Scannell issues instructions on UL’s playing fields
Niall Scannell issues instructions on UL’s playing fields

Daragh Small

It's the weekend every Munster fan has been waiting for and as the supporters prepare to turn Aviva Stadium red, the players need to keep their eyes firmly focused on the prize.

But that shouldn't be a problem for a side who have upset the odds all season long, and Munster seem destined for a Champions Cup final, even with the reigning English and European champions in their way.

Niall Scannell is one of the many Munster players who has consistently performed heroics for his team this term, and the 25-year-old hooker finally got his just reward when Joe Schmidt called him into Ireland camp in preparation for the Six Nations.

Four international caps followed, and with three tries in 51 appearances for his province, Scannell has become another experienced leader in the Munster pack.

And the Douglas native will need to keep a calm head when he steps out at the Aviva tomorrow in the biggest game of Munster's season so far.

"I have seen a lot of stuff about how Saracens are the team to beat, and they are, but we will go up there and give it a shot. At the start of the season we didn't think we were going to be here," says Scannell.

"But we deserve it, we have put in the work and beaten some brilliant teams. At the start, it looked like we were going to be the whipping boys of our pool so to get out of it and beat an unbelievable team like Toulouse was fantastic.

"It was on our radar at the start of the season, but we got a bit of belief and that grew over time. Having that mindset and confidence in what we can do is brilliant. We just have to go for it now."

Munster have been awesome in the Guinness Pro12 and in Europe all season, with two defeats against Leicester and Scarlets the only blots on their fixture list since their memorable win over Glasgow.

Saracens have been similarly impressive in their campaign, but Scannell believes playing them in Ireland will be a big advantage.

"We are playing the reigning champions so from that point of view we have got to take the semi-final as if it's the final and see where we go from there.

"We can't be afraid of winning things, it could happen for us if we win the semi-final, but it's at a stage where you have to be the best to beat the best. In the Pro12, we have to keep our heads down and make sure we get that home semi-final. Hopefully get the results and a bit of luck, hopefully there is still silverware for us."

Munster's form this season might seem like a bolt out of the blue, but everyone within the club knows that this team was going places since last season - despite their poor results then.

Doldrums

And with Rassie Erasmus brought in as director of rugby, and Jacques Nienaber picking up the reins as defence coach, Munster were set for great things after a number of years in the doldrums.

"We had some good results over the last couple of years but we just weren't backing them up enough. Then last year we all put our hands up and said that the performances just weren't there," says Scannell.

"We didn't have any big results bar Stade Français at home. That's probably the big change. It is hard to take confidence when you haven't had the results, but once we got them we took confidence from it.

"We have a feeling, going into games now, that we can mix it with anyone. It counts for a lot when you have a few big results, you believe on your day you can take on anyone. It helps you to play positively.

"When you are a few points down at the end of a game you are thinking we have got to get a try, last year we were thinking we had let the game slip. It's a massive mindset shift."

Collectively the team upped their performance on the field, but the individuals began to stand out too. And it was only a matter of time until Joe Schmidt came calling.

An injury to Seán Cronin opened the door for Scannell's arrival at Carton House, but he still had to prove himself when he got the opportunity

"When Seán Cronin got injured I thought I would have a chance but wasn't sure in what capacity. Rory Best was going to start and it was between myself and James Tracy. He had been capped previously so I wasn't sure.

"That was my goal, to compete with him, and give a good account of myself. We had only a week's training before the game against Scotland. I was delighted to be involved. I didn't play there which was disappointing, but to start against Italy was a massive turnaround. It went brilliantly."

Scannell went on to feature in four of the five games during Ireland's impressive Six Nations campaign.

Now he wants to see Munster into their first European Cup final since 2008, then take care of business in the Pro12, before potentially touring with Ireland in the summer.

"It would be brilliant to go on the summer tour to the USA and Japan. There is a lot of permutations around these things. Any involvement with Ireland in the summer would be excellent. That would be a new experience.

"You need to back these things up and it's a hard thing to do. To come in for a campaign and then be involved for the next campaign and build for the November series.

"Sometimes these things are clichéd but you have to put that on the back-burners, we have Champions Cup and Pro12 before any of that. I will try and put my best foot forward and hopefully get on the tour then."

Irish Independent

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