When Tony McGahan left Munster we gave him an average report card, deeming his leagacy a mixed one. His currency, however, is diminshing by the week, because Rob Penney has hit the ground running so well. Indeed, he’s already done the one thing McGahan couldn’t do in all his four years there: get Munster to buy in to his philosophy.
Consensus was that McGahan wanted Munster to play a more expansive game than they had done under Kidney, but you wouldn’t necessarily have known that from watching them on the pitch. Indeed, if Martians landed on Thomond Park and asked us what McGahan’s Munster’s gameplan was, we would have found it difficult to explain to them. Under Penney, it’s clear what’s going on. Backs and forwards no longer look like complete strangers who just bumped into each other in the corridors before the game. There’s an emphasis on keeping the ball alive, and in James Downey and Casey Laulala, the personnel are there to do it.
In a perverse sense, Penney has been fortunate that he could bed in his ideas in the absence of Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara. Without wanting to denigrate two of the great players of this (or any) era, there was always a suspicion that they had too great an influence under McGahan’s reign. When the pressure came on, Munster reverted to their way of playing the game; the way that brought them success under Kidney. That meant ROG kicking territory and Paul O’Connell taking up the ball time and time again, but for little gain and sub-lightning-fast recycling.
Due to injury and player welfare requirements, both have been largely absent from Munster’s opening month, and the rest of the team have flourished in their absence, which is not to say they won’t be huge assets when they are back in the fold. ROG is back already and O’Connell soon will be – but they’ll be being dropped into a successful, winning team, playing better than at any time in the last three years, as opposed to having to grab the team by the scruff of its neck, as would have been the case in the recent past. The Munster camp looks a happy one. They seem to be enjoying their rugby. Just look at the re-energised O’Callaghan for proof. Invisible and derided on this blog last year, he looks like Stakhanov reborn.
All that said, the real business starts now. Next week, Munster go away to Ospreys (who have had a strange start to the season), and that’s followed up by the Leinster grudge match and the first Heineken Cup match away to Racing; a game which increasingly looks like the key to navigating the group. Here’s three calls to ponder for Rob Penney:
1. The Back Row
One thing that hasn’t changed from last year is a lack of ball-carrying heft in the Munster pack, particularly in the absence of the injured James Coughlan, on whom they are already overly reliant for hard yards. Dave O’Callaghan is putting his hand up for selection on the flank and CJ Stander has yet to arrive. O’Mahony hasn’t played yet but has the sort of ball skills that look tailor made to Penney’s game. Niall Ronan, Sean Dougall, Paddy Butler and Tommy O’Donnell are all in the picture too: tidy footballers all, but not in the Generation Ligind class. What chance a backrow of O’Callaghan-Ronan-O’Mahony? It would have plenty of football in it, but lacks for physicality and experience. Penney must find the correct balance, which could bring Butler into the reckoning.
2. The Backline
WoC commented in its last seasonal review of Munster that they had good players to fill every shirt from 11-15, so there was no need for them to look as awful as they did. This is being borne out. Indeed they’ve so many good players that one is going to miss out. Hurley is a particular favourite here at WoC; pace he may lack, but he’s big, strong and first and foremost, a proper footballer. Howlett is captain, he plays 14. Downey is inked in at 12. It leaves Zebo, Earls and Laulala fighting for two jerserys, with Earls certain to start, but perhaps in the role he apparently hates. All three look bang in form. We’ve a feeling Zebo might just be the one to miss out, but this is a marginal call whichever way it goes and whoever misses out will get his chance at some stage.
3. Dun-dun-Dunnnnnnnnnn. Number 10.
O’Garawatch has never been such fun. Losing his Ireland place crearly rankles; imagine if he lost his Munster starting jumper. Picture the Sky cameras panning to his face in the Thomond Park stands. Think of the media men sharpening their pencils. Ian Keatley is knocking harder than ever, and looks better suited to the game Penney wants to play. But you underestimate ROG at your peril, and we suspect both Leinster and Racing would still prefer to face Munster with Keatley at 10 than the wily old Corkman. Keatley’s Heineken Cup starting debut is probably more likely to come at Thomond Park than in a hard away game.