Midfield playmaker Scannell a bright prospect for Munster's future

The 22-year-old Corkman has had an excellent breakthrough season.

THE SCANNELL CLANN from Douglas in Cork have a fine rugby pedigree

Niall, 23, and Rory, 22, are established as members of Munster’s senior squad under Anthony Foley, with the former having captained Ireland at U20s level and the latter playing for Emerging Ireland last summer.

Rory Scannell makes a break Rory Scannell is in the midst of a breakthrough season with Munster. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Niall and Rory became the first pair of brothers to start a Pro12 game together for Munster last December, lining out against the Dragons in Wales, while fourth year Presentation Brothers College student Billy is the latest promising player in the family.

Billy, PBC captain at Junior level and now a hooker like Niall, played in the Senior Cup this year and also represented Munster U18 Schools in their recent meeting with the France U17s on the back pitch at Thomond Park.

“He’s loving it,” says Munster centre Rory with a smile. ”He’s probably feeling under a little bit of pressure now, but we’re telling him to take it easy and do all the basic things. He’s training hard and he’s enjoying it at the minute.”

Billy’s time is yet to come, but Rory’s is very much now. In a season that hasn’t always gone according to plan for the province, 22-year-old Scannell has been one of the major bright points for Munster.

The Dolphin RFC clubman has established himself as first-choice in the 12 shirt in the absence of Denis Hurley and has improved with each and every one of his 20 appearances.

Even on the darkest day of the campaign so far, the 27-7 defeat away to 14-man Stade Français, Scannell impressed. The Douglas native was arguably Munster’s best player in Stade Jean-Bouin that day, on what was his first European start.

The fact that Munster have been battling through their season means Scannell’s rise has gone somewhat under the radar outside the southern province, but he has shown himself to be a young Irish player of rich potential.

An eagerly-anticipated inter-provincial clash with Leinster at the Aviva Stadium today gives the Corkman a chance to demonstrate his growing quality to a wider audience, though he is driven by a desire for collective success rather than individual gain.

Rory Scannell Scannell has been excellent for Anthony Foley's side this season. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Scannell is still in his third year of Munster’s academy, and made his senior debut last season at inside centre in an away win against Cardiff. He started at out-half in the home victory against the Blues in February 2015 and rounded out that debut season with another outing at 12 as Munster beat Treviso in late April.

The current campaign has vastly exceeded his initial expectations.

“At the start of pre-season I was hoping for game time during the World Cup, while some of the lads were away,” says Scannell. “I was back late after the Emerging Tour, but I got a few starts at the beginning of the season, and Denis Hurley had a setback [with injury].

“I was in and out of the team before Christmas, but since then I’ve started most games. It’s all about getting that confidence, trying to progress each week.”

Scannell is modest about his achievements, but the underlying impression is that he is a young man with the kind of deep-rooted self-belief that the best players possess.

As he chats in Limerick’s Castletroy Park Hotel after a Munster squad training session in the nearby University of Limerick, Scannell comes across as a level-headed and determined figure.

His rugby life began as an eight-year-old, when his primary school friends convinced him to follow them to Cork Con. His father was more of a soccer man, and it was mother Emer’s side of the family that had the stronger allegiance to the oval ball game.

Scannell continued to play Gaelic football, hurling and soccer throughout his youth, but rugby took sole focus soon after he helped PBC to a Junior Cup trophy in 2009.

As a fourth year, he was on the fringes of an excellent 2010 Senior team panel, as older brother Niall joint-captained Pres to title success against JJ Hanrahan’s Rockwell College. ”Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to pick up a medal,” recalls Rory with a laugh.

Rory Scannell Scannell's Pres side lost to Rockwell in the 2011 final. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

In 2011, Scannell was at outside centre as Rockwell had their revenge over PBC with a 9-3 victory in the final at Musgrave Park.

The midfielder advanced into the Ireland U18 Schools squad that year, however, helping them to win the U18 FIRA/AER Championship in France alongside the likes of Stuart Olding, Luke McGrath, Rory Scholes, Dan Leavy, Ed and Bryan Byrne, and Jerry Sexton.

Having shone at out-half for PBC in sixth year, Scannell had an important decision to make about his club rugby upon graduating.

“Niall had gone to Dolphin after school,” says Scannell. “They wanted me on board and I thought at the time, going into the sub-academy with Munster, that it was a club where I’d get a decent amount of game time, because there was lads involved with Munster in Con at the time.

“I went to Dolphin and played a lot there, as well as playing Irish 20s that first year out of school.”

Indeed, Scannell stood out for Mike Ruddock’s U20 side in 2013, starting four of their Six Nations games at 12 and guiding them to a 16-15 win over eventual champions England from out-half in the other fixture.

At the Junior World Championship that summer, Ireland opened with a brilliant 19-15 win against Australia, before almost conjuring a stunning comeback win against New Zealand in a game they lost 31-26.

Though Ireland ended that campaign in disappointing fashion, the experience instilled belief in Scannell that himself and his Irish peers could compete with anyone.

“I was actually playing fullback in that first Australia game as we had a few good centres that year. We had Robbie Henshaw in and out, Stuart Olding in and out that year, before they went on the summer tour with Ireland.

“Tom Farrell and Tom Daly were there as well, so in the first game we had the two Toms in the centre and I had played a bit of 15 with Dolphin, so Mike Ruddock asked me would I be comfortable playing there, and I said I’d love to.

Rory Scannell Scannell and the Ireland U20s almost shocked the Kiwis. Source: GwŽna‘l MahŽ/INPHO

“We started off with a good win against Australia and another against Fiji, we were unlucky to lose to the All Blacks but we were coming from 25 points down and looking for a try to win it. It was a disappointing end to the tournament eighth after nearly upsetting the favourites [New Zealand].

“A lot of the perception is that the Irish 20s would be smaller than other teams, but we went out with the mindset that we had the skill and ability to beat those teams. We beat England and France that year, the two Six Nations favourites and England won the Six Nations and World Cup that year.

“Even the year before me when Niall was at the World Cup, they beat South Africa in South Africa, which was a massive upset. That helps for the teams coming through the years after. We have the ability to beat those big sides.”

Throughout that first post-school year, Scannell benefitted from the tutelage of Steve Forde at Dolphin, as well as the opportunity to play regular games in the increased physicality of senior rugby.

Advancing onto full academy terms with Munster in 2013, Scannell swiftly became a star player in the Ulster Bank League and impressed in his increasingly regular appearances for the province’s A team too.

“There’s only what – six, seven or eight A games a year, so it’s important to be playing every week,” says Scannell of the role Dolphin played in his development. “It helped me because it was physically a big step up from school.

“I enjoyed playing for the first two or three years and then when lads start to stand out in those AIL games, you get your chance at A level, and then you’re thrown into the Pro12 when you show you have that ability.”

Having made his three starts for Munster last season, Scannell showed enough quality to be selected for Emerging Ireland’s trip to the Tbilisi Cup under Girvan Dempsey and Allen Clarke.

With Joe Schmidt keeping a close eye on proceedings, Scannell featured off the bench against an Italy side and then led the Irish team to a 33-7 win over Uruguay from out-half, kicking four conversions.

“At the time, I had only played a few games with Munster and I was a bit shocked that I got selected for the tour,” says Scannell. “There were guys coming back from injury that were trying to push into the World Cup squad and it’s a good environment to be in.

Ireland's Rory Scannell Scannell played at 10 for Emerging Ireland last summer. Source: GRU/INPHO

“There was lots of capped players on that tour [Stephen Archer, James Cronin, Rob Herring, Noel Reid and Rhys Ruddock] and you learn from them.

“You’re putting on a green jersey and it gives you that hunger to push on and try to get your Irish caps. I really enjoyed it and it definitely gives you that taste of international rugby, that’s where you want to be.”

The rate of improvement Scannell has shown for Munster this season means he may well get an opportunity for senior international honours in the future. Some in Munster wonder if he had emerged in another province whether there would be greater hype around his breakthrough season.

Scannell doesn’t care much for outside perceptions, instead focusing on improving his skillset with each passing week.

He has made one start in the 10 shirt for Munster this season, but the remaining 15 appearances in the XV have come at inside centre, where he has nailed down his starting place.

Standing 5ft 11ins tall, Scannell is not quite imposing in stature but at over 95kg he does not lack the bulk to prosper in midfield, and has shown excellent power and footwork through the tackle.

Having played in a number of backline positions, particularly out-half, Scannell has developed a keen appreciation for he requirements of the man inside him.

“The 10 can’t always see what’s going on in front of him. He relies a lot on his centres and back three to feed that information in,” explains Scannell. “It helps even with Johnny [Holland] last weekend; it was his first start in a while and for him getting that info from myself, Earlsy and Zeebs made his job a lot easier.

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“Giving him options in terms of distribution and to carry, I enjoy the physical side of things as well, so I like 12. It’s best suited to me.”

The impression is that Scannell is growing more confidence in unleashing his excellent passing range too. Though Zebre were poor opposition in truth, the Corkman fired a gorgeous pass to Ronan O’Mahony for a first-half score and launched another beautiful miss pass to Darren Sweetnam in the build-up to Simon Zebo’s first try.

Munster’s Rory Scannell wins the Guinness Pro12 Man of the match award presented by Ken O'Dea Scannell was man of the match against Zebre. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

“We talked through the first one off the scrum and we felt the way they were defending that it was a good opportunity to throw it. I was trying to get into first receiver as well and use my passing game [as for the Zebo try], so I had opportunities to do that.

“As a 12, you’re often deeper off the gainline and I feel like I have a bit more time on the ball and it’s a bit more comfortable. You can have a quick scan on what decision needs to be made. If the pass is on, pass. If there’s space in the backfield I have that kicking option as well, which is good to have as the second five eighth.”

It’s interesting to hear Scannell mention the term ‘second five eighth’ unprompted. Anthony Foley and attack coach Brian Walsh spoke about using a playmaker in the 12 shirt when they first took over in 2014, but it rarely transpired in their first season as Hurley was selected.

Scannell has had his chance this season, however, and the value of that second set of eyes, a second decision-maker and passer, has been clearly underlined. It helps that Scannell has robust carrying and defensive games too.

The 22-year-old has grown in terms of his confidence this season, a shift which began with Munster’s last meeting with Leinster.

“That game just before Christmas was my first start against a very top tier European team and I just said to myself to do the basics well. I did that and I got the start in Ulster the following week,” says Scannell.

“Against Stade [in the Champions Cup] I was obviously nervous going over there and unfortunately we didn’t get a result, but I was just trying to do the basics as best I could. I had an ok game myself, but we didn’t win.

“I kind of realised at that stage, ‘Jeez, maybe I am capable of performing well at the top European level’ and I’ve really enjoyed it since.”

You won’t get a declaration of his quality from Scannell, nor a claim that he will be ready for an Ireland jersey soon. He’s understated and hard-working, just how they like their players in Munster.

Scannell signed a new contract with Munster earlier this season, taking the “natural step” onto development terms in 2016/17 before graduating onto his first senior contract in 2017/18.

Rory Scannell with Garry Ringrose Scannell evades Garry Ringrose the last time Munster met Leinster. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The Cork native is currently in the process of finding a house in Limerick as he prepares for the move when Munster’s new training base in UL comes online this summer.

Having finished his finance degree in UCC, Scannell feels the timing for the move is right, though he jokes that several of his fellow Corkonians will be scrambling back to the real capital when Munster have rest weekends.

“We only see each other as a squad two or three days a week, so to be together everyday will be helpful on and off the pitch,” says Scannell. “The facilities are going to be top-class so most lads are looking forward to it.”

Munster hope the new training base will be part of a resurgence next season, both in the Pro12 and the Champions Cup, and Scannell looks certain to be a prominent part of the future.

Already the young centre is becoming a key part of the jigsaw in the southern province, on and off the pitch.

“I wasn’t too confident to be speaking up in front of the more senior lads at first, but now I feel that they’ve made me more comfortable in the environment and they chat to me about what happens on the pitch or even off the pitch.

“I’m definitely more confident in speaking up at meetings, whereas when you’re a young fella you’re nearly afraid that the senior lads will be like, ‘Who’s your man talking here?’”

They certainly know now, and if Scannell continues to do the business on the pitch it’s likely that the rest of the country will sit up and take notice too.

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Murray Kinsella

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