LIMERICK Leader Rugby Correspondent, Colm Kinsella talks to former Munster player Sean Scanlon who is facing a ‘make-or-break’ season with English Championship side Rotherham Titans
IT is the night most Munster supporters remember as the occasion when John Hayes bade a fond farewell to the red jersey. But for Sean Scanlon St Stephen’s Night 2011 at Thomond Park will forever be etched in his memory for a very different reason.
Limerick full-back Scanlon made his competitive debut for Munster in that Connacht derby clash, capping an eye-catching display by bagging a try in Munster’s 24-8 PRO12 win.
Scanlon’s time appeared to have come. A dynamic runner and excellent finisher, the former Irish U-20 player looked well-placed to become a regular in Tony McGahan’s Munster side over the subsequent months and seasons. But fate dealt the former Crescent College Comprehensive student a different hand.
Ear-marked as a special talent from a young age, Scanlon spent two seasons in Munster’s Sub-Academy after leaving Crescent College Comprehensive, before moving onto training and development contracts with the province.
A series of impressive displays with Munster’s ‘A’ side led to his competitive debut against Connacht three years ago this Christmas.
Scanlon recalled: “The fact it was John Hayes’ last game for Munster made the game a lot bigger. It was great to get to be part of it. Maybe John did have the limelight, but I didn’t mind at all. I was happy to slip under the radar a small bit.
“For me personally that game was massive. I spent Christmas Day with my family, which isn’t the normal build-up to games. Obviously, I wasn’t over-indulging in the turkey and trimmings. I was strict in what I ate.
“I have never been more nervous in my life. The week leading up to the game I never did as much extras in training. I was last one off the pitch.
“It was a dream to score a try on my debut, my first competitive start in Thomond Park. It was amazing, really.”
The following weekend, Munster travelled to Ravenhill to face Ulster in the League. Despite his try-scoring exploits at Thomond Park, Scanlon wasn’t included in the starting line-up.
“Tony McGahan said, ‘look, Denis Hurley is going to come back in,’ the game is away in Ravenhill. If it was a home game I probably would have played, but because it was away they felt Denis had that experience under his belt. Munster hadn’t beaten Ulster at Ravenhill for a couple of years. I understood the decision to go with Denis, but I suppose when you don’t play the following weekend, all of a sudden you slip back down the pecking order.
“Denis did well and there were guys in my position who were playing well. Whether I was playing well with the Munster ‘A’ team, I can’t really remember. I do remember getting positive feedback from the coaches, though. A couple of weeks later, it was confirmed I was going to have a full contract for the following season. The opportunity to play again didn’t arise that season. It was disappointing not to get on the pitch.”
Scanlon featured for Munster in their pre-season games at the start of the 2012-2013 season, scoring a try against La Rochelle. It seemed only a matter of time before a second competitive appearance would come.
“For the first Rabo league game that season I lost out to Ivan Dineen because he can cover wing and centre and I was covering back three.
“Simon Mannix said I was unlucky not to make the bench. I played well for the ‘A’ side and then all of a sudden my back injury crept up on me. After a scan it was found I had a herniated disc in my back. Everything went belly up from then.
“I had the operation in November and was out for another four months after that with recovery.
“It was almost a six month injury. I got back in late March. The year had basically passed me by. I played a few games with Garryowen, the B&I Cup with Munster ‘A’, a quarter-final which we won, before the lost the semi-final to Leinster in Dooradoyle. From there, there was no opportunity for me to impress.
“I knew I would have to potentially look elsewhere because of my injury I hadn’t played much. Whether or not I was going to be kept on by Munster, I was always thinking I might have to go elsewhere to get game time under my belt.
“It is such a competitive environment within the back three area that I always thought in the back of my head that I may have to go elsewhere to get more gametime and progress as a player. There is only so much progression you can do in the AIL and ‘A’ level rugby.
“My agent was looking around, but if Munster came in with an offer, that was well and good. I would have to weigh up what was being put on the table. A couple of offers came in from the Championship and they were sitting there.
“I had a good discussion with Rob Penney. He asked me if I had other options available and I said I had, Rotherham were looking like the best option from the Championship sides. He advised me to go. Playing every single week would benefit me. The standard in the English Championship is high.
“Moving abroad is nerve-wrecking, but it was made easier at the time by chatting to a few people who had been there before, the likes of Eamon Sheridan, who is now at London Irish, and Sean Dougall who had arrived at Munster. They spoke very highly of the club.”
Helped by the healthy sprinkling of Irish players at Rotherham, Scanlon settled in well and enjoyed an impressive first season with the Titans who reached the promotion play-offs.
“Things went really well for me last season. I did pick up an injury at the start and was out for four to five games, but I played every game after that. I scored eight tries. I was very happy with it. It was nice to play with one team week in and week out, train with them, get game time.
“Rotherham came to me with a new two-year offer towards the end of last season, but we eventually agreed a new one-year deal.
“I didn’t want to be tied down after this season. There was security with two years, but I am quite ambitious. I want to step up to the next level, whether that is with Rotherham or with a Premiership team. I did have other offers from Championship sides, but none from the Premiership.”
The Yorkshire-based Rotherham Titans are currently lying fourth in the English Championship and top of their pool in the British and Irish Cup.
Twenty six-year-old Scanlon appreciates this is a key season in his career. “Look, you want to perform week in and week out, be consistent as well as having a few stand-out moments. That is what I must aim to do, get myself out there and known. If nothing comes of being promoted with Rotherham, maybe something else will appear,” Scanlon said.
“I have turned 26. You could say this year and next year are obviously make or break years for me.
“I am completely realistic with that, that I need to try and make a move now if I really want to kick on and make a viable career out of it. I have a Masters in economics as well and am doing a level two RFU coaching course at the moment.
“I am a qualified personal trainer, so look I can pursue other options. I need to really start making a career for myself in rugby now and try and push on. The next 14 to 15 months are pivotal for me.”