Rory Scannell embarks on his fifth European campaign this weekend confident that the value new attack guru Stephen Larkham can add to Munster’s arsenal could be the missing ingredient to landing the Heineken Champions Cup.
Scannell, 25, has been ever-present for his home province in the tournament since his competition debut against Treviso in 2015 and in those 32 consecutive Champions Cup appearances has suffered the agonies of three semi-final straight defeats, twice to Saracens either side of a loss to Racing 92.
Munster will be reunited with both those sides in the pool stages but begin with a trip to Ospreys this Saturday at Swansea’s Liberty Stadium, when senior coach Larkham tastes European action for the first time since replacing attack coach Felix Jones during the summer.
With Jerry Flannery quitting as forwards coach to add to the unexpected vacuum in the coaching team last May, head coach Johann van Graan has turned a difficulty into a opportunity and recruited what he considers to be “the very best” as replacements with Graham Rowntree now installed as forwards coach following his World Cup involvement with Georgia and Larkham already proving a hit with midfield linchpin Scannell. “It’s been great. He would have been someone I would have watched a lot when I was younger, as a 10,” Scannell said of Larkham.
“He was a quality player and he’s gone on to do some good coaching with Australia and the Brumbies so for us, it’s a great addition.
“I don’t think we’re going to discredit everything we’ve done over the last couple of years. He’s just coming in and slowly adding a few small tweaks and changes that can make us better and improve our skillset.
“Obviously the end goal is to improve our overall attack. Our attack has been good over the last couple of years but it hasn’t been good in the semi-finals so if we can keep building over the next couple of months then hopefully come the end of the season we’ll be ideally looking for a trophy.”
While the Munster management and squad accept the integration of two new voices into pivotal roles with the province could take time to bed in, Scannell is optimistic that Larkham’s influence can help them build over the season and finally produce a fluent attacking performance when it matters most at the business end of the campaign.
“There’s a lot to happen between now and the semis but that’s where you want to be at the end of the season and hopefully those small changes that he does make will help add to our attack and hopefully then we can show that on the day because we haven’t done that in semis recently. So that’s the aim I suppose.”
The three consecutive semi-final defeats have exposed a skills deficiency that was quickly identified, first by Rassie Erasmus, director of rugby for the first defeat to Saracens in Dublin in 2017, and then by his successor van Graan.
Though Larkham praised the skills of the Munster players last week, he has been placing a big emphasis on improving individual skillsets as part of his focus on the province’s attack.
Scannell added: “Especially with the backs, our handling under pressure, our kicking under pressure and getting away accurate passes and kicks. For the forwards and the backs, those contact skills, you know, breakdown, body height is massive in the contact so those changes in our skillset, hopefully, will all come together and help improve our overall attack as a squad.” As first-choice inside centre, Scannell will play a key role in that effort, with the added incentive of a big-name signing in South Africa’s World Cup-winning centre Damien de Allende potentially on his way to Munster for next season. Scannell, though, insists competition for places in midfield is already ultra-competitive.
“I don’t think it lights a fire (under you),” he said. “There’s always someone coming up behind you looking for that jersey and at the moment we’re lucky we have quality centres in the club with Chris (Farrell), Dan (Goggin), Sammy (Arnold), you know, Jaco (Taute) the last few years.
“There’s been a lot of injuries in that position as well and luckily I’ve managed to stay fit but I’ve played a lot with all three of those guys over the last three years. You want them all fit but the way rugby is, that’s rarely the case that they are all fit and ready to go.
“If that is the case (and de Allende signs), it’s great to add that quality to our squad. We want a lot of quality players in the squad and pushing each other but I don’t think it lights a fire, you always want to get better and push on and keep your place. But it’s great if that is the case that we have that competitive side to the squad.