Munster hooker Niall Scannell has reflected on a breakthrough season that saw him make 23 appearances for the province, starting 10 games and amassing a total of 753 minutes of senior rugby.
Looking back on a season that also saw him make his European debut against Leicester Tigers at Thomond Park, Niall Scannell is relatively happy with his lot for the year, but as with most elite athletes, is always striving for more and looking for that added edge.
“If I thought at the start of the season I’d have been involved as much as I was I’d have taken Axel’s hand off for that opportunity. I’m happy with the amount of game-time I got this season but at the same time I’m not satisfied – I want to keep pushing forward,” said the 24-year-old.
“When you stop aiming to push forward, that’s when you start to move backwards. Now I want to establish myself firmly over the next season or two.”
So, how does the hooker compare himself now to the player he was at the beginning of the season? “It happens gradually and you probably don’t see yourself as being massively better, but for me, if I compare the first and last game of the season – in the first I was on the bench and didn’t even come on, whereas I started the last game against the Scarlets – that’s a positive swing and one I’m happy with.
“Earlier in the season I’d spend 80% of the time concentrating on lineouts and making sure I hit them, whereas when you grow in confidence you begin to think more positively and as a consequence you impact games more.
“Previously I’d have concentrated solely on not making mistakes and that has been the biggest change in me across the season. I now know that I can do it and it’s about going out and executing it properly on the day.”
While many associate place-kicking as one of, if not the, most pressurised facet of rugby, hookers endure somewhat similar pressures when it comes to lineout accuracy, although the front rowers are not necessarily granted the same levels of grace as their back-line counterparts.
“Throwing is a specialist skill but sometimes people don’t necessarily see it like that. Everyone can relate to how hard kicking a ball can be, but not so much when it comes to throwing into the lineout. You can be in Thomond Park when it’s lashing rain, with strong gusts of wind and people groan when you miss it.
“The mental side of it – I was at a level where I was thinking positively and had the technique down but when you haven’t gone in there and done it a lot it’s hard to fake the confidence. The more reps I got under my belt this season the easier it became. You can know and practice all the drills in training but until you’re doing it in a match environment it’s very hard to get to where you need to be.
“Doing it in games week in, week out, you get to know your jumpers, they get to know you, and you get used to playing on bigger stages in bigger stadia. Thomond Park for example, I wouldn’t have considered a home ground for me until this season as previously I would only have played there three or four times.”
23 appearances this season marks quite the breakthrough season for the Corkman with Scannell now reaping the benefits of regular matchday inclusion, both on the field and in his relationship with an extended squad of almost 40.
He added: “If there was a player in Limerick who was a back, we wouldn’t have had that much to do with each other as we were in different centres on different days and in different splits on squad days. Whereas this season, on away trips, I was able to get to know guys a lot better and that in its own way made me more comfortable in the squad.
“The new High Performance Centre in Limerick will be brilliant from that point of view. To a degree you nearly feel as if you are joining a new team and it’s really exciting to be part of this new venture for Munster Rugby.”
Hoping to build on his recent achievements, Scannell is under no illusions that selection will come any easier next season with a total of four hookers vying for the number 2 jersey.
“With the talent we have around hookers in the squad, I’ll be starting from the exact same position as I did this season – there are four of us on the starting line again looking for number one. I’ll take a lot of confidence from the past season and the challenge for all of us is to be the guy that everyone’s chasing.
“With Duncan (Casey) and Kevin (O’Byrne) coming back from injury and Mike (Sherry) and I going tit-for-tat all season long, it makes for a hugely competitive challenge next season where we’ll all be starting from scratch.”