As an ever-present for Munster in Europe, since the dark days of a losing pool campaign, Rory Scannell is perfectly placed to assess his province’s current ability to compete at the highest level.
With a third straight semi-final coming this Saturday, against Saracens, few teams have experienced a Heineken Champions Cup rollercoaster to the extent Munster have since their second title, in 2008.
Scannell was a raw recruit at the start of the Champions Cup era, making his European debut at 21, at the outset of the 2015-16 campaign, before a Champions Cup debut on January 9, 2016.
That was the day Munster hit rock-bottom, a 27-7 pool defeat at Stade Francais. That marked the end of the road at the pool stage for the second season in succession and the start of Scannell’s run of 26 consecutive European games in the number-12 jersey.
That Munster were back in a semi-final 15 months later was a significant achievement, but a comprehensive defeat by Saracens, in Dublin, proved to be another milestone on Scannell’s European journey.
This Saturday’s rematch, in Coventry, provides the inside centre with an opportunity to look back on what went wrong that day, in a 26-10 loss, and why he feels his side are better-equipped to take the next step and reach a first final since 2008.
“Two years ago, a lot of that squad hadn’t been involved in a knockout European game, because the previous two seasons we hadn’t made it out of the group,” Scannell, 25, said.
“So, we look back on it after that and we let the pressure get to us on the day; we weren’t firing, really. Sarries were probably at their best at the time. We found ourselves chasing the game in that second-half. The last two years, the majority of the squad have experienced those big knockout European games. Hopefully, we’ve learnt from it. It’s an exciting challenge ahead at the weekend. The lads can’t wait to rip in now.”
Scannell said the pressure of such a big game at a sold-out Aviva Stadium might have got to an inexperienced Munster side. “At the time, I was young breaking into that team and I wouldn’t have thought about the outside stuff too much. But when you have 50,000 Munster supporters behind you in the Aviva, and you nearly feel like you let them down, we had such good support and we didn’t do them, or ourselves, justice on the day.
This weekend’s game, at the Ricoh Arena, will be the third time of asking for this Munster side, having gone down 27-22 to Racing 92 at the same stage 12 months ago, a poor start in Bordeaux the root of the trouble.
“We probably let the game go away from us last year in Bordeaux and in Dublin the year before.
“Before we knew it, we were chasing the game and you just have to get a good start in these games, because, before you know it, the 80 minutes has passed you by and you’re out of the competition. It sinks in pretty quickly that you’re not going to get a trophy for at least another 12 months.
“So, we’ve experienced that now and it’s not a good feeling. Hopefully, this year we can push on. We’ve a good, big, fit squad and we’ve all the ability to do it this year.”
Scannell does not deny that Saracens are favourites on English soil this Saturday, following their 56-27 demolition of Glasgow Warriors in the quarters. “We’re going in as underdogs. There’s no doubt about that. They’re unbeaten in Europe this year; they’ve only lost (five) games in the Premiership, and they’re a quality opposition across 1-15 and even two in most positions. They’ve a massively physical pack, their set-piece is quality, scrum and lineout, and their backline is pretty lethal. Their defence, I think, has only conceded 37 tries in 19 Premiership games, which is a pretty good stat. We’ll be facing a lot of linespeed and it’s going to be a massively physical game. It’s going to be a tough task, but we’re looking forward to it.”