Penney Passes First Test

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.

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9 Comments

  1. Dave

     /  September 24, 2012

    The backrow along with the other lines you mentioned will be very interesting. I don’t know if power will be as big a concern for the backrow as you say. Dave O’Callaghan for instance is 6’5” at least and Stander is a bit of a tank. Word around is that there has been a real emphasis on tailored training and conditioning for each player under the new regime also. The younger players that looked a little rangy last year have added some well needed bulk. Having said the likes of Denis Leamy and David Walace will take some replacing.
    Outhalf will be particularly interesting especially with the emergence of JJ Hanrahan and the apparent coming of age of Ian Keatley and your man ROG. Penney seems a damn shrewd operator and I am sure he will manage his resources well. Lets just hope that the fans can manage their expectation similarly!

  2. The back-row is an interesting one. Without Coughlan, and with Stander not likely to be in contention until December, the 8 position has to be filled. Personally, I’d pick Butler there for the home games, as he’s the best footballer, with O’Mahony at 6 and Ronan at 7. O’Callaghan as a blindside/lock might be more useful against the bigger packs away from home, with his greater defensive capabilities. The same goes for Dougall.

    Outhalf is Keatley’s to lose, at the minute. ROG will have it tough against the Os, so I think Keatley’ll get a chance against Leinster, and that’ll probably dictate who plays in the HC. ROG is still the better tactical kicker, but Munster don’t really have the forwards to make use of that any more. Keatley’s running threat and tackling are of greater worth to the side, in my opinion.

    In the centres, I think we might see Laulala picked with Earls this week, as Downey is due a rest. Again, it’s an area of strength, so any 2 from 3 will be a decent pairing. I think Earls is slight favourite for the 13 jersey, on the basis that he’s been Munster’s best back for years and he’s going to flourish under the new system.

  3. Don

     /  September 25, 2012

    Peter O’Mahony as an eight?
    Everyone keeps tossing this idea around. I personnally do not see it at all. He just does not seem to have the power to play that position. I shrudder to imagine what he would look like with the scrum going backwards.
    Also, fair dues to Keatly. For years he was my soft target, the almost ran who just couldnt make it and I snorted into my cornflakes when I heard Munster had got him. Yet he seems like a new player this season and I tip my hat to him. Lets hope he can keep it up.

  4. AndrewinKorea

     /  September 25, 2012

    Reading this article (and a couple of the recent ones) makes me smile considering the thread on lf.com about ‘Off The Ball’ (apparently) being obsessed with Munster. No matter what Munster do, a little bit like Liverpool in that other sport, they are always headline and article grabbers 🙂

    With regards to Munster, I think its too early to say this has been Penny’s first test. You could argue then that Joe Schmidt failed his with Leinster in 2010. 4 League games (3 wins) against average opposition means Munster have made a good start, but nothing else, just yet. I’m not dismissing anything about them, but the success of the opening salvo to this season for them will come after round 2 of the HEC. If they are in the same position as last season in that Cup (no matter how they do v Ospreys and Leinster) then absolutely, test passed.

    Edinburgh were awful in the League last season (only Aironi did worse than their 6 wins and 32 points) so not sure the merit of that first game. And you could argue they lost their only real test so far – Ulster in Belfast.

    I’m not writing them off but let’s wait until the thing really kicks off before declaring anything a success.

    Ulster are the only side with a 100% record in the League and you’d have banked the whole lot on them beating Zebre had it not been for the devastating news about Nevin Spence and his family.

    If I was a betting man, and I am, but an unsuccessful one, I would say Munster will win 2 of their next 4 games (one in RB and one in HCUP). Wouldn’t worry about the RBD just yet, but let’s see how many points they pick up in Europe.

    Test to come.

    (Enjoyable site by the way. Frequent reader/creeper, first time comment. Keep the articles coming)

    • Stevo

       /  September 25, 2012

      I would imagine that what WOC meant by Penney passing his first test was getting the team to buy into his system and implement it successfully on the field, rather than simply winning games. You can only beat what’s in front of you, but the point is they’ve looked like a coherent attacking force while doing it. Yes, they lost in Ravenhill, but sure most visitors do!

      • AndrewinKorea

         /  September 25, 2012

        Can’t believe Leinster have lost just once there since May 7th 2004. Phenomenal record. (They’ll be beaten there this season cos of this).

        I agree with all the old cliches about playing what’s in front of you and a win is a win. I’d just save the talk until Paris. Not denying Munster have started the season well. Taking nothing away from them at all – but like Leinster (who have a similar record – but the only team to have conceded fewer points than Zebre…Jaysus), I’d save it for now.

        My buddy who lives in Paris posted the Racing Metro advert for the game. Looks hilarious. Racing lads in perfectly clean strips waiting on beautifully mowed lawn for these muck savages invading from some knee high grass fields. Can’t wait for the real show to get going.

  5. @Andrew – ‘All that said, the real business starts now’ – taken from the above piece. Our first test for Penney was imposing the style of play he wants on the team. This he has succeeded in doing. Nothing significant has been achieved yet in terms of results, and as we say above, we watch the next three games with interest, because they’ll reveal a lot.

  6. zdm

     /  September 25, 2012

    I have to say, I’ve been impressed by Penney thus far. Very early days but as you mention, he has brought his own plan to Munster and made it stick.
    I don’t think I was the only one who assumed he was just keeping the seat warm for Axel until he got a bit more experience and I was sceptical about how much of a stamp relative unknown (in northern hemisphere circles at least) would be able to make on the team. I remained sceptical when he appointed Howlett as captain. As a winger myself, I would be the first to admit that it is not a traditional leadership position and Howlett, while still world class, is firmly in the “Generation Ligind” camp.
    All that said, he looks to have picked on form rather than reputation – Keit has been put back in his box for now (the one with a big white 11 on it) and he has managed to keep O’Gara quiet despite not picking him.
    Although they lost to Ulster, they lost narrowly and while it seems that they have ceeded ground to the Northmen, the gap is much closer than many pundits would have you think.

    I think the acid test of both Penney and Anscomb will come when they have to manage any (potential) fly half issues at the end of the season – if Keatley or Jackson don’t have the break-through seasons their clubs are hoping for (I’d worry more about Keatley personally) then what do they do next year? How likely are the wizards in Carton house to sign off on a NIQ 10 when both teams have 2 Irish qualified fly halves in situ?
    I can see Ulster attempting to yo-yo O’Connor back out of Belfast but ROG? I can’t see him going quietly.

  7. Stevo

     /  September 26, 2012

    @AndrewinKorea – had a look online for that ad you mention and found this – http://accueil.stadefrance.com/files/files/DCE/INFO-SP/affiche_1000x758_RM92-vs-MUNSTER_v2.jpg

    Hilarious stuff all right, though probably not too dissimilar to the mythical warriors angle Guinness tend to go for around Six Nations time!

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