Sunday 21 July 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Scannell: We weren't a rugby-mad family growing up'

Ireland hooker is targeting silverware after penning new contract with native province

Niall Scannell goes through his training routine during an Ireland session in Carton House. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images
Niall Scannell goes through his training routine during an Ireland session in Carton House. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

It would easy to assume that the Scannell household was rugby-mad growing up, easier still to presume that a family that produced two Ireland rugby players with a third, Billy, an U-19 international, were driven towards their goal from an early age.

That assumption would be wrong, according to the eldest brother Niall (26), who smiles at the idea that his parents Bill and Emer were drilling their children for a life in elite sports.

He and his brother Rory are living a dream, but it wasn't really their dream at the beginning.

Growing up, Niall's ambition was to wear the red and white hoops of the Cork goalkeeper's jersey, following in the footsteps of his hero Dónal Óg Cusack.

With less than two years between them, Niall and Rory were part of the same teams all the way up, whether it was playing soccer, football or hurling. Going to school at the renowned Presentation Brothers, Cork set them on their way to playing for Munster and Ireland together.

"We would have been brought down to street leagues in Douglas GAA club when we were four or five, we'd have gone playing for College Corinthians, we did swimming," Scannell recalls.

"My mum's family is sports-mad, my granddad played with Cork and he'd have encouraged the GAA side of it.

"It was just a 'try everything' mentality, there was never any pressure on us.

"That's probably the misconception at times, people think it's nearly like an Earl Woods scenario.

"It wasn't like that at all.

"Going to Pres, because it's such a talented programme, how much it was about winning cups, probably flicked a switch with me because I'm so competitive.

"There wasn't a focus on breeding professional rugby players, that's where I think there's a misconception that we were nearly like the Williams sisters, way less successful, but that it was driven that way. It wasn't.

"That competitiveness is probably just in the family, I don't know where we get it from. Probably a bit from both of our parents. I wouldn't say we were ever pressured into anything, but it was a case that I wanted to do well at things.

Pressure

"Every fella that makes it to here has that, but I don't know why some have it and some don't.

"That certainly was there with all of us, my sister (Kate) as well in college and things, she wants to do well.

"It's not that there was pressure, there wasn't a sense that you weren't getting extra dinner for doing it! We all had that spirit as well."

Sport was in the family; their maternal grandfather Donal O'Sullivan played for the Cork footballers in the 1950s, his son Tadhg was the Munster doctor.

"I wouldn't say we're from a rugby-mad family," he explains. "My uncle was the team doctor before, so I think people often think that we're born and bred into it, but it was probably more GAA growing up - maybe not Billy so much because we would have been playing when he was younger.

"When you hear stories about the likes of Pete (O'Mahony) and stuff, growing up in Con pretty much - we weren't like that.

"Rory played soccer, I played a small bit of soccer but mostly football and hurling.

"Then, when I went on to Pres I was probably athletically more suited to rugby than the other two.

"I watched Munster and have loads of great memories from when I was younger but mostly in secondary school. It's not really something I've been worshipping since I was a kid.

"I'm a bit different that way."

Páirc Uí Chaoimh rather than Thomond Park dominated his thoughts.

"I was obsessed with playing for Cork when I was younger," Scannell says.

"I would have gone to all the GAA games with my old man. I remember there was tears and the whole lot when there was All Ireland finals that Cork were in and obviously we couldn't all go.

"My granddad used to get tickets and I've loads of cousins. I remember going to the 1999 final and thinking it was brilliant, we probably weren't expected to win it really, but then I had a drought ticket-wise for a few years after that.

"That was my dream, I played Cork U-14, U-16 hurling and then when I got to fifth year I got on to the Irish Schools and the Cork minors and you're at a stage where the Cork minors was a big commitment and I had to make a decision.

"I was a year young at that stage with the Irish Schools so I said I'd give it a whirl. I never looked back, I've hardly touched a hurley since."

It worked out well.

A decade on, he is Munster's starting hooker and an established member of the Ireland set-up who would have more than 11 caps if it wasn't for injury.

He was rightly disappointed to miss out on the wins over Argentina and New Zealand last month, but could console himself with starts against Italy and the United States.

He is seen by many as Rory Best's main rival for the No 2 jersey and knows he's in that conversation and is looking to the next fortnight as an opportunity to push his case.

"I was delighted to start the two games, but I didn't get the Argentina and All Blacks game and that was disappointing," he admits. "It's one of those things, what do you do? I wasn't selected.

"That's just the way it was. I was lucky to have a shot against the USA and put my best foot forward.

"These Champions Cup weekends are the ones where I need to play well and put my hand up.

"I feel privileged to be in the camp and I'd like to think I'm quite close but I've got to start banging the door down if I want to get in.

"It was a great campaign. As a team it was an unbelievable environment to be involved in, the buzz after the All Blacks was unbelievable.

"I want to be in there, I want to be involved more and I want to be winning with that team. I just have to keep putting my hand up."

This week, he and Rory committed their futures to their home province with new deals that run concurrently until 2021.

He is confident that success is on the way at Munster.

"Things are going well, I'm enjoying the coaching. This is obviously my home club, it's probably an easier decision for the likes of myself and Rory. I've grown up here and I want to win here," he says of his decision.

"That was kind of my motivation and, look, I want to play for Ireland.

"But it's a testament when you see guys like Arno (Botha) sign up, guys who could go to any club. They don't need to be here, they want to be here. That's brilliant.

Motivation

"I think they want to win here and I think we are going to win something here soon.

"That's my motivation."

Doing alongside his brother would make it extra special.

"We played together in Dolphin and I was like, 'People love harping on about this', but I suppose I appreciate now how few people get through the system," he says.

"It's good to share things, winning a trophy would be a big one but even nights like the Glasgow game (when Rory kicked the last-minute winner) I just went to the far side of the pitch and I was thinking, 'Please God, kick this'.

"In my own head I was wondering, 'Has he been kicking? Why is he after stepping up for this?' All of these things are going through your head.

"Then, when he kicked it's great to share moments like that. We're probably appreciating it more now that we're getting a bit older, you realise these years aren't going to be here forever.

"So, it probably is a bit more enjoyable now to know your brother is involved. We live very close together in Limerick, we're quite close.

"I probably nearly just see it like I would a lot of the lads, a mate, but then I suppose in those big moments you appreciate it a bit more. It'd be great to get a few more of them."

Irish Independent

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