The mind has always been willing for more rugby but sometimes in this long season the body screams at Rory Scannell to tell him enough is enough.
Munster’s inside centre will today lace up his boots for the 26th time in the province’s 30th game of the season as they welcome Edinburgh to Thomond Park for a Guinness PRO14 semi-final qualifier that Scannell hopes will not be his last action of a long campaign.
Last Saturday’s final league game of the regular season, at home to Ulster, marked a rare weekend off for the 24-year-old, respite after a run of games that began against Edinburgh at Murrayfield on March 16 and took in the Scarlets, that epic win over Toulon, a two-game tour to South Africa and the heartache of a Champions Cup semi-final exit at the hands of Racing 92 in Bordeaux.
Scannell would not have swapped it for the world, nor his involvement in Ireland’s Grand Slam-winning training camp throughout February and March but he also enjoyed the rest that came his away last weekend.
“After the Racing game we’d had two weeks in South Africa, had Toulon just before that; it’s a tough block of games and when you’re coming to the end of a six-week block like that you’re nearly crying out for a break,” Scannell admitted this week.
“But at the same time you want to be playing every week and when you’re not playing you’re not happy. So there’s a bit of a balance to be had here but I’m enjoying staying fit at the moment and playing as much as I can.
“The body goes through the mill most weeks but I wasn’t playing last week so I got a good rest over the weekend, which was good. When it gets to this stage of the season it starts taking a toll on you but, touch wood, I have been lucky with the injuries this year and I think I’ve been available for every game.
“When you’re staying fit that’s the main thing, getting your opportunities every week and then you just have to go out and perform.I’ve enjoyed the rugby we’ve played this year and it’s great to play 25 games in a season and hopefully I have a few more left.”
Long-term injuries to fellow centres Jaco Taute and Chris Farrell have necessitated Scannell’s heavy workload, currently standing at 1,675 minutes for the season and also introduced him to a new midfield partner in Sammy Arnold, a squad-mate for two injury-hit seasons in Limerick who is making the most of his own run of games now he has escaped the Munster treatment room.
It has been a fruitful partnership, with Scannell and Arnold thrown together for the first time at Zebre on November 26, in the week Johann van Graan arrived as head coach. Within a month the combination had come of age in the home and away wins over Leicester Tigers.
“With Jaco and Chris getting injured in that period and during November when Chris was away with the Irish squad, Sammy found himself all of a sudden in the same boat nearly as me, playing most games since then as well.
“He only played once or twice last year and was coming back from a few injuries, it was a struggle but I think this year he’s shown what he’s capable of. He’s only just turned 22 and he’s pretty much been injured on and off since he’s been 18 so I is delighted to be staying fit. Sammy’s unbelievably energetic and physical and if he wants to do all the physical stuff I’ll let him!
“He really showed up in those back-to-back Leicester games, against Matt Toomua and Manu Tuilagi, a world-class centre partnership.”
Toomua and Tuilagi have not been the only heavyweight midfield to have met their match in Scannell and Arnold this season. Ma’a Nonu and Mathieu Bastareaud were another pairing whose experience and physicality could not overpower the Munster duo when Toulon came to Limerick last month and were sent packing from Europe.
Racing’s Henry Chavancy and Virimi Vakatawa may have been a contest too far but it underlined to Scannell that there is no hiding place when Munster play their biggest games of the season.
“When you get to this stage of the season and playing knockout rugby you’re coming up against the best of the best,” the Cork man said, the chuckling as he continued: “We came up against a pretty physical centre partnership in Nonu and Bastareaud. They only had (Malakai) Fekitoa to come off the bench then, which didn’t get much easier. It’s been a great experience playing against those guys. You just know you have to show up physically and you’ll give yourself a chance. On the day we did that and against Racing you’re coming up another physical centre partnership in Chavancy and Vakatawa. So there’s not much hiding, you just have to go out and show up physically and do your thing and give yourself a good chance.”
The defeat to Racing has cast a shadow over this Munster campaign but for Scannell his exposure to so much rugby this season can only be regarded as a benefit to him and his team.
“Luckily I’ve got a good run under my belt and I’ve played quite a lot over the last three seasons, so I feel each season I’m getting better and better and hopefully that progression will keep going.
“Staying fit and keeping in the mix is all you can hope for and when you get your chances on the weekend you just have to put your hand up, learn from previous mistakes.
“That’s what I’m trying to do, just build on my game, week on week. It seems to be going okay but you always want to get better.” Not many would disagree with his assessment, not least the team-mates who nominated Scannell for the Munster player of the year award alongside Jean Kleyn and eventual winner Keith Earls.
Nor Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt, who handed him a Test debut on the summer tour against the United States and capped him twice more in Japan before calling him back into the Six Nations squad for the second season in a row.
“It was great to get capped last summer, it was a great experience and I really want to build on that now and hopefully push on.
“Even when you’re training with guys like Johnny (Sexton) and Rob Kearney and guys like that who are highly experienced at international level you can’t help but learn a lot. I definitely learned a lot and worked on a lot of aspects to my game during that time even though I wasn’t playing in the Six Nations.
“I was a travelling reserve again for two of the games and when you’re that close it’s nearly worse because you just want to play so much but I definitely learned a lot in that eight-to-10-week period and it was great to be involved in a Grand Slam-winning side.” Sexton’s experience of being a non-playing squad member of the 2009 Slam squad, when he admitted he had not felt a part of the success, resonated a small bit with Scannell.
“There’s definitely a bit of that. I travelled to France the first week and you’re really close but then the following week you’re back to your club and you feel like you couldn’t be further away. It’s a weird one. You all add to the winning side, you’re all training together and pushing each other but when you’re not in those matchday 23s it’s tough to consider yourself part of it. But it was great to be involved in the extended panel. I learned a lot from it and hopefully in the coming years I’ll be there or thereabouts and hopefully playing.”
His first chance in that regard may come next month when Ireland tour Australia for three Tests against the Wallabies yet first things first and that is Edinburgh.
“We don’t want this weekend to be our last club game. We have a tough test against Edinburgh and I’m still thinking about the Munster side of things but if you perform well as a team you’ll stand out and if all goes to plan we’ll be in the mix for a semi and hopefully a final. Then once you’re there you can be there or thereabouts for that touring squad, which is the aim now.”
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