It took a South African defence coach to release the genie, but now it’s out, Munster’s tenacity and enthusiasm without the ball is in no danger of being returned to the bottle.
There was a time when Niall Scannell struggled to understand why some opponents took a peculiar pleasure in getting quickly off the line and landing big hits on their targets, but after a summer working with former Springbok defence coach Jacques Nienaber, the penny has dropped for the hooker.
Incoming director of rugby Rassie Erasmus wasted no time in bringing Nienaber with him from the South African Rugby Union when he signed a three-year contract to lead Munster into a new era.
They had worked together at the Stormers, where Nienaber had begun life as strength and conditioning coach and physiotherapist before immersing himself in defensive systems. His success caught the attention of SARU and he joined the union’s high performance, working for general manager Erasmus and being seconded to the Boks before the chance of some foreign work experience arose in Ireland.
Scannell, 24, and his team-mates have been the beneficiaries, if last Saturday’s opening-day win at Scarlets is any indicator, Munster absorbing considerable pressure with a remarkable defensive effort in the way they hunted down the attacking threat, ever hungry to regain the ball before showing a clinical edge with ball in hand to win 23-13 in the West Wales rain.
“Sometimes with the poor conditions as well, it kind of lends you to getting off the line and test another team’s skills but I think we’ve put a lot of energy into our ‘D’ at the moment,” Scannell said. “Since Jacques has come in, it’s really brought that energy and intensity and that bit of excitement really that we’re getting out of it, which is good and I hope that was there to be seen from us at the weekend.
“There’s nothing hugely different technically to what we were doing last year but I suppose it’s just that there’s so much energy and enthusiasm and it’s rewarding if you’re getting off that line and trying to put shots on guys.
“I think that’s something you will have seen from other teams in the league with a South African coaching influence the last few years. I can kind of see why they love smashing us so much now because Jacques really brings that excitement to it and that reward for getting off the line and making your hits.
“So technically not a huge amount, more the approach he’s brought to it. It’s different and exciting for us.”
Confidence is high right now after that first-up victory in the Guinness PRO12 but Scannell has not forgotten the recent bad news received by fly-half Johnny Holland, his fellow Corkonian who was last week forced to retire at the age of 24 due to a serious hamstring injury.
“For me, it was probably a bit more emotional,” Scannell said. “I came through the academy with Johnny, I’ve known Johnny since we were 16/17 and it hits home a lot when it’s a guy that you’re quite close to.
“Since that age he’s been a consummate professional, always done what he is supposed to do.
“I was there the night (the injury) happened against Nottingham and I never had seen Johnny go down like that, so I knew it was serious. He’s a tough bit of stuff and after all the work he has put in, for it to end in retirement is tough for him but on the other side of the coin he is going to apply everything he has learned to stuff outside of rugby.”
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