If Niall Scannell ever needs a reality check about what real pressure feels like, he and his Munster team-mates do not need to search too far back in the memory banks.
Of course, there will be tension felt in the camp as preparations continue ahead of Saturday’s Guinness PRO12 final against Scarlets but ultimately the feeling at the end of a long and often trying campaign is one of excitement at the prospect of their big day out at Aviva Stadium.
A year ago, the rookie hooker was focused on a very different type of contest with the same opposition, with the team from West Wales due in Limerick for the final day of the regular league season and with a top six finish in the balance for Anthony Foley’s Munster.
Not wanting to be the first team from the province to fail to qualify for the Champions Cup after 21 consecutive seasons in top-flight European rugby brings an altogether unique pressure compared to what faces Munster this weekend and last season’s desperate late run into the qualifying places, sealed with a 31-15 Thomond Park win over the Scarlets just to avoid that stigma, was an experience that will live with Scannell, 25, for a long time.
“When you start to get nervous about a big game like Saturday, you can reassure yourself this is where you wanted to be and where we have come from too,” Scannell said this week. “We can be positive about that. I think that is something I will look back on this week. When you start to get those nerves, like, this is where we wanted to be and we have worked hard for that.
“I think sometimes it can be an Irish thing, that sometimes we find it hard to say, ‘yes, we deserve to be in this final’. We have been consistent all season and I think we need to keep telling ourselves that. I think sometimes we can be too critical of ourselves and maybe overly humble or self-deprecating, however you want to say it. We just have to say ‘this is exciting, we have worked hard to be here’ and give ourselves every chance to get a win on Saturday.”
Reaching this season’s PRO12 final would have seemed beyond the team’s capabilities 12 months ago yet the foundations for the success of the current campaign were laid in those final weeks of 2015-16, both as a team and for Scannell personally.
“I think this week is excitement, I’m a bit giddy myself I had to take a deep breath coming in front of (the media), I didn’t want to be too giddy but it is exciting. Last year was real pressure where you have to, have to win just to get into Europe whereas this is exciting pressure, it’s enjoyment we want to go do it, this is where we wanted to be.
“We have to get a big performance out of ourselves but it’s a different pressure. Last year was really, really tough going into those games I was in knots in my stomach with nerves. We didn’t want to be there but we were there and I think it definitely gave us a bit of experience in that area.
“I have more experience, but it is not like I’m going into games thinking any differently. I don’t know how much that stands for, especially with a game like Saturday because I have never been in that environment, but I think I am probably a bit more assured around the things that I am good at.” What has been evident from Scannell this season is that leadership is one of those boxes ticked in the “good at” column. In truth, the Dolphin man has been leading the charge for some time now, captaining PBC Cork to the 2010 Munster Schools Senior Cup and two years later performing the same role for the Ireland U20s as they beat hosts South Africa and England (in the knockout stages) at the 2012 Junior World Championship before claiming fifth place with a victory over France.
It was an Ireland side jammed with star potential, with 2017 Lions Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson, future Munster team-mates JJ Hanrahan and Chris Farrell and an opponent this Saturday in lock Tadhg Beirne.
Never one to keep his thoughts to himself, Scannell has laid down the law to them all and it has done him no harm, his reward coming during this season’s Six Nations when he made his Test debut for Ireland with a start against Italy in Rome.
Being an Irish U20 captain, he joked, “doesn’t count for much in the Munster dressing room” but you can be assured leadership does, particularly when you’ve earned your stripes.
“I suppose I was never afraid to talk up. As fellas will tell you, I have been known for that, for a long time. I think when you speak it can carry more weight when you have done more. I think as a young fella, I didn’t appreciate that and I used to just pipe up and I had not done it.
“When I am actually playing more, fellas will maybe listen more to you. I know Peter O’Mahony was complimentary of me in recent times, but he definitely doesn’t listen to me. It is nice of him to say it anyway.
“I am not that young anymore either., I am 25, so that is maybe an element of it as well. It is probably something that comes to you more, the more you play and with age. I wouldn’t have thought of myself as a massive leader or anything like that., I am more about getting my own things done and sorted. If you sort your own job at the weekend, fellas are happy with that and that is what I will aim to do at the weekend.”
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