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'I play rugby because I love the game, not just because my brothers play'

20-year-old hooker Billy Scannell is heading into his second season with Biarritz in France.

LIVING ACROSS THE road from La Grande Plage beach and getting around town on his little black Vespa, Billy Scannell is feeling very much at home in the beautiful seaside town of Biarritz in France these days.

The 20-year-old hooker is a year into his time with the Pro D2 club, making his way as the third and youngest brother in a family that has also produced Munster players Niall and Rory. Their cousin, Jack O’Sullivan, is now part of the Munster senior squad too, so there’s clearly something in the blood.

Having impressed for the Biarritz’s U23 espoirs team, Scannell made his senior debut for the club back in February just before lockdown, with the cancellation of the remainder of the 2019/20 campaign likely denying him further opportunities in the Pro D2.

But with the new season now less then two weeks away, Cork man Scannell is training full-time with the senior team and featured on the bench for the recent pre-season game against Bordeaux. The hope for this 2020/21 campaign is to gain more exposure as Biarritz look to push back up to the Top 14 – where they were previously a real force.

It’s certainly a very different pathway for a young Irish player, with Scannell’s Leaving Cert French having been thoroughly tested over the course of last season.

“It’s all definitely a culture change but you just have to go with it,” says Scannell.

He was part of Munster’s sub-academy up until the end of the 2018/19 season and had won a cap for the Ireland U20s in the 2019 Six Nations but his progress halted thereafter and the province didn’t offer him a full academy place.

“I found out there wasn’t a contract there for me with Munster which was obviously quite disappointing,” explains Scannell.

“It’s your home province and my two brothers and cousin are there, a family affair I suppose.

“I actually only found out quite late so there was a bit of a panic trying to find a club but luckily my agent, Stuart Watkins, did some great work and this amazing opportunity came up in Biarritz.”

billy-scannell Scannell playing for a Munster development team in 2018. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

10 days after signing, Scannell was in France, moving in with former Munster back row Dave O’Callaghan, who had joined Biarritz along with scrum-half James Hart. Familiar faces were helpful but it was still a whirlwind experience for Scannell, who was 19 at the time.

But chasing professional rugby was what the young hooker wanted, even if that wasn’t always the case growing up.

There was always plenty of GAA in the Scannell household, with their grandfather, Donal O’Sullivan, having captained Cork to the All-Ireland football final in 1956, and Billy played hurling and football as a kid.

He started rugby with Douglas RFC, rather than Cork Con where Niall and Rory had gone, but made the switch at U12 level -  ”a tour to Italy was mentioned,” he says with a laugh – and played there until going to Presentation Brothers College, Cork for secondary school, where his bothers had preceded him.

“People always asked me, ‘Niall and Rory are professional players, is that what you want to do?’ but I always said I just played rugby because I enjoyed it, not because anyone told me I should play or just because my brothers do.

“I play rugby because I love the game, it just happens that there are three professionals in the family. There was definitely no pressure for me to play.”

Billy showed real potential as he won Junior and Senior Cups along the way with PBC and as he earned caps for Ireland Schools, he realised rugby was what he wanted to do. His brothers were never pushy but offered plenty of support.

“Any time I need any help or advice, the lads are there – obviously me and Niall are in the same position so we can chat about throwing or scrummaging,” he says.

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billy-scannell Scannell played for Ireland Schools, U19s and U20s. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“When I was with Munster, with all the young lads, not just me, we would all go throwing together with Niall and the other senior hookers. That’s Niall’s nature – to help out.”

Billy comes across as a mature man for his age – “I’ve always felt a bit older than I actually am, probably just from hanging around with older guys” – so perhaps it’s no surprise he has settled so well in France.

He joined Biarritz on a two-year espoirs contracts that finishes at the end of this season but is already hopeful of staying on beyond, in part because of the possibility of qualifying as a JIFF [joueur issu des filières de formation] player after three years in France – therefore ensuring he doesn’t count as a foreign player in senior matchday squads in the future. It’s a very handy qualification to have in French rugby.

Furthermore, Scannell simply loves Biarritz – which won’t be a major shock to anyone who has visited the place.

He enjoyed the espoirs rugby last season, even if it involves long bus journeys around the country – 13 hours the longest so far – and clearly the club rate him, having handed Scannell that senior debut last season when injury and suspension struck the hooking depth chart.

Scannell was back in Ireland on a scheduled week off when the club’s director of rugby, Matthew Clerkin called him and asked, “How quickly can you get back to France?”  so the hooker hurried back over to Biarritz.

The debut came off the bench away to Vannes in a feral atmosphere at a sold-out Stade de la Rabine – coincidentally, where he had watched Rory play for the Ireland U20s in 2013 – and though it lasted only a few minutes, Scannell relished his first Pro D2 scrum and getting on the pitch alongside the likes of O’Callaghan and Steffon Armitage.

“It was a very proud moment for me,” he says of playing a part in a 27-24 win for Biarritz.

Scannell is making progress with Biarritz. Source: Instagram/Billy Scannell

Off the pitch, Scannell took on a French language diploma last season as part of the JIFF process and having initially been “nearly embarrassed telling the French guys I did it for six years in school,” he’s in his groove these days. Hart, who is half-French and fluent, was a great help in the early days.

Having completed a year of college at UL when he was in Munster’s sub-academy, Scannell took last season off but will launch into second year of a Bachelor of Commerce degree through NUIG in September.

He’ll do the course online along with fellow Cork man Eoghan Barrett, who is with Top 14 club Pau, while also continuing the French diploma and trying to further his rugby progress with Biarritz. Family and friends visited regularly last season, with Scannell happy to show them around.

As he continues to work hard on nailing his basics of throwing and scrummaging, Scannell is excited to get back into action this season and push hard for more time on the pitch with Biarritz, whose intent was underlined by the signings of another former Munster man, Francis Saili, and ex-Wallabies wing Henry Speight this summer.

“I’m ambitious to play as much senior rugby as I can and take my opportunities when I get them,” says Scannell. “I’m doing as much as I can in pre-season.

“When I was involved in Munster, it would have been a dream of mine to kick on there but I’m really enjoying it here. Long-term, I don’t have a major plan.

“It’s always in the back of your head that you’d love to put on the Munster jersey but for now it’s just that Biarritz jersey in my mindset. I’d love to stay in France, play for Biarritz, get my JIFF, and hopefully go on to the Top 14. I’m just living in the present.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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