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Analysis: Munster man Rory Scannell's superb form keeps him in Ireland mix

The 24-year-old has been a key player for his province for the past three seasons.

WHILE THE BIG names of Ma’a Nonu, Mathieu Bastareaud and Malakai Fekitoa stole the headlines in the build-up to last weekend’s Champions Cup quarter-final at Thomond Park, Munster’s Rory Scannell arguably proved to be the most influential centre on the pitch.

Rory Scannell with Ma'a Nonu Scannell's fine form continued against Toulon. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The 24-year-old has been consistently excellent for his province over the past three seasons, marking himself out as one of the first names onto their team sheet.

Scannell and his centre partner – the exciting 21-year-old Sammy Arnold – were superb defensively against Toulon and if Munster are to win against Racing 92 in France in the semi-finals, their partnership is likely to be key again.

Whoever Scannell has played alongside since establishing himself as first-choice in the 2015/16 campaign, he has been quietly outstanding.

The Cork man isn’t the kind of player who scores stunning solo tries or shreds defences with his individual skills, but he is the kind of midfield glue that every team needs.

Scannell earned his first three Ireland caps on last summer’s tour of the US and Japan, while he was one of the extra bodies for Joe Schmidt’s side before two of their Grand Slam fixtures in recent months.

Though Ireland’s midfield competition is fierce, the former PBC student will be eager for a chance against Tier 1 opposition during the June tour of Australia and if he can maintain his strong form, Schmidt will find him hard to ignore.

Only two players – Billy Holland [23 starts] and Jean Kleyn [19] – have started more games for Munster this season than Scannell, who has clocked up 18 starts, scoring five tries.

Scannell has played a total of 1,492 minutes across the Pro14 and Champions Cup this season for Munster, and rarely has his form dipped.

Rory Scannell Scannell won three caps for Ireland last summer. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

That consistency of his performances is as impressive as anything else and some players struggle to find that element, particularly in their younger years.

Against Toulon, Scannell had a relatively narrow focus in his duties – primarily tackling and making short carries close to the defence – but his midfield game has continued to grow this season.

Gainline qualities

While it is increasingly important that inside centres have more than just physical qualities to their game, the battle for the gainline remains a key component of most 12s’ duties.

For Munster, Scannell consistently plays a vital role in ensuring his side make yards with ball in hand and limit the opposition in doing so.

At 5ft 10ins and around 98kgs, Scannell isn’t the biggest midfielder around but he packs an aggressive punch in contact.

His ball-carrying is often done in dense traffic, particularly on the first or second phase of set-piece attacks, as Munster look for front-foot possession on which to build their attack.

Carry

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We get a good example of Scannell’s ability to win the gainline with the carry above, as hooker Rhys Marshall throws directly to him over the back of the lineout.

Scannell is slightly off balance after collecting the ball but he still generates power into the first contact with Toulon out-half Anthony Belleau, tucking his left arm into his body to help him brace, almost coiling himself up like a spring, before driving into the tackle.

Bosh

Scannell’s balance is evident as he beats Belleau and then drives his legs for a few extra metres as Guilhem Guirado brings him to ground.

The fine carry means Munster’s forwards can now thunder onto front-foot ball around the corner.

Forwards

Scannell was Munster’s second busiest ball-carrier in this quarter-final, with his 10 carries second only to CJ Stander’s 16.

The inside centre eked out an average of 3.5 metres per carry, which tallies closely with his average over the course of this season.

Scannell’s carrying in this kind of midfield traffic is not just about power and grit.

His left-footed step is an effective weapon, as highlighted in the carry below – this time from a scrum platform.

Scrum

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This is a very familiar set-piece play from Munster – one they have used to try-scoring effect this season – and Scannell has a number of options after he receives the ball from Conor Murray direct from the scrum.

Scannell can carry himself [yellow], hit Arnold with a short pass to his left [red], or go out the back door behind Arnold to out-half Ian Keatley drifting wide [white].

1

The option this time is to carry, and now we see that sharp step and acceleration off the left side from Scannell.

2

The burst of acceleration off his left foot takes Scannell to the inside shoulder of Belleau and through his tackle, leaving the out-half in his wake [blue below].

3

Toulon scrum-half Eric Escande has worked across on Belleau’s inside and tackles Scannell, but a good latch from Arnold [red] combines with that typical Scannell leg drive to give Munster fine gainline progress and set up another promising attacking position.

Defensive leader

Again, different teams have different expectations of their inside centres but many rely on their 12 to be a defensive leader.

Scannell has emerged as a real force for Munster in this area in recent seasons, impressing with his strength in the tackle and his ability to read the opposition’s attack.

Munster have often operated with aggressive linespeed, placing a premium on players to make good decisions as they advance at speed, and Scannell excels in this area of the game.

Last weekend’s clash with Toulon presented the Munster midfield with a unique challenge in dealing with the sheer size and power of the visitors, particularly the in-form Bastareaud, but Scannell and Arnold combined to superb effect.

Their success in this area was a decisive factor in the game, as stressed post-match by captain Peter O’Mahony.

Scannell and Arnold made 10 tackles each against Toulon, with just a single miss from Arnold, as they essentially negated Ma’a Nonu and Bastareaud’s impact.

Hit

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The double tackle on Bastareaud above summed up the dogged nature of Munster’s midfield defence last weekend.

The France international is surging onto the ball in the kind of position where he has made such damaging gains in recent times, but Scannell [white] dips in low to hit him around the legs, clinging onto his left ankle.

Hit1

Arnold hammers into the hit on Bastareau’s upper body [red], instantly wrapping the ball and removing the threat of the Toulon centre’s offload.

With Scannell clinging on doggedly and O’Mahony arriving in to lend his weight, Arnold then shows off his impressive power to haul Bastareaud back up the pitch and to ground.

Hit2

Having failed to win the gainline through Bastareaud, we can then see how Toulon are stunted in their attack and have to reorganise themselves off slow ball.

With 176, Scannell has completed more tackles than any other Munster back this season.

Of course, the high numbers are mainly down to the amount of traffic that comes down his channel, but his appetite for defending so often stands out.

There were many examples of his work rate in defence in the clash with Toulon and with the clock in the red as the French side looked to steal the win, Scannell was still making an impact.

Impact

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This game didn’t provide us with any strong examples of Scannell’s ability to make good reads when the opposition operates with two layers of attack.

Making good decisions around when to sit down and tackle the front-door option and when to push beyond the decoy to pick up the ‘second wave’ of attack is essential for any centre, and Scannell delivers in that regard more often than not.

Distribution

Having played a fair share of his schools rugby at out-half, as well starting a game there for Munster in 2015, Scannell is comfortable passing the ball.

He has a particularly good pass off his left side, very often firing long passes from left to right to allow Munster to attacking in wider channels.

Scannell only had one pass against Toulon – Munster having relatively little possession and not focusing on the wide channels when they had it – but the example below against Connacht earlier this season is typical.

Pass

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Scannell is the second receiver here off the scrum and perhaps most important of all are the steps he takes after getting the ball from out-half Keatley.

Scannell stays ‘square’ up the pitch, his hips towards the tryline, rather than drifting out to his right before passing.

P1

Even just a couple of steps straight up the pitch ensure that Connacht’s defence can’t drift out to their left early, holding them in until after Scannell has passed.

He fires the skip pass across the face of Chris Farrell to Andrew Conway sprinting into the space that Scannell’s running line has helped to preserve.

Those straight steps are a huge challenge for every centre in world rugby, with the habit so often being to slightly drift outfield before passing – therefore allowing the defence to drift off, as well as eating up space for the attacking players out wide.

Scannell’s work after passing is worth highlighting too, as he immediately looks to run upfield – as do others – and offer support to Conway on the inside.

P2

It’s very basic stuff, but then the most simple parts of the game are the keys to good midfield play.

Of course, these long passes are not the only type of pass Scannell makes for Munster and there have been plenty of shorter ones across the course of his 98 total passes for the province this season.

While it does appear that his longer passing off his right side is something he is still working hard on, Scannell’s comfort on the ball is also a bonus for Munster when their out-half is forced to get involved in contact.

Again, the Toulon game didn’t provide any great examples of that but other games this season – particularly Leicester Tigers away in the Champions Cup pool stages – have seen Scannell popping up at first receiver very frequently.

Even when Munster’s out-half is on his feet and prepared to play, having a second playmaker in the backline in Scannell is an obvious advantage – allowing them to threaten on both sides of the ruck or use Scannell as a back-door option behind hard-running forwards.

While Munster have yet to fully harness the potential effectiveness of a second playmaker tactically, it seems likely to be a focus for Johann van Graan and Felix Jones as their side develops in attack.

Kicking

Scannell has a strong left-footed kicking game to go along with the rest of his skills and Munster have benefited from it time and time again since his emergence.

The Cork man regularly kicks penalties to touch for Munster, using his left foot when the angle is tight against the right touchline and often finding good distance.

There were a handful of line kicks from Scannell again last weekend, but the centre’s single kick in open play highlighted more than just the quality of his skill in this department.

Kick

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Belleau has kicked deep behind Munster and Scannell is in the backfield, forced to turn and track back to gather the ball.

He shows good handling skill to reel in a tricky bounce near the touchline.

Hands

Those who have been isolated in the backfield know how it can be a daunting situation, but Scannell is calm as his team-mates in front of him look to recover their shape.

They need a reference point and Scannell locates it for them by spying out space deep in behind Toulon and hammering his kick over 45 metres into that space.

Now it’s Toulon who have to turn, track back and recover their shape.

Turn

By the time they retrieve the possession and look to launch a kick return, we can see that Munster’s defence is in relatively solid shape.

Shape

Scannell [white above] has led the chase up on the side of the pitch where he has kicked from and Toulon shift the ball to their left instead, where Darren Sweetnam makes a strong tackle before the French side box kick back at Munster.

Scannell has had several purer strikes of the ball for his team this season with his left boot, but the incident above neatly shows the kind of composure he consistently brings for Munster.

So often, he is the quiet but important glue that holds the team together.

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Murray Kinsella

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