The Munsters

A thought struck us during the recent HEC action – in their times of greatest need this season, the second half of the Embra game, the must-win home fixture with Saracens and the away-day bosh-up in Lahn, Munster have reverted to the type of rugby the province is most comfortable with – 10 man boot and bollock with rolling mauls, marauding backrow forwards smashing everything that moves and kicking for territory.

Thing is, Rob Penney came on board loudly promising to introduce a more expansive style of play, but it looks like he has tempered those plans.  After the Edinburgh game he talked about how the team being ‘un the put’ where they are having to learn a new way of playing, but when they eventually come out of ‘the put’ they will be so much the better for it.  But if they keep reverting to the old ways, will they ever get out of ‘the put’?

It’s worth thinking back to how the early promise of the Ludd McGahan era (recall the 43-9 beasting of a star-studded Ospreys side) crumbled into a mish-mash of styles as the coach struggled to get his ideas across to a team used to something different. Before you say, ah but McGahan was crap, note how the Wallaby side he is now defence coach for won 3 (vs England, Wales and Italy) and drew 1 (vs BNZ) of their 5 game Northern Hemisphere tour, while conceding just 5 tries despite a lorry-load of injuries – McGahan was a capable coach, but the message didn’t get across.

So is the Penney Revolution struggling to get air? Its obviously way too early to reach a definitive judgment, but there are some issues that he already needs to address:

The Forwards

While the current edition of the Munster pack has its plus points, it’s nothing like the pack of 2008 – only BJ Botha (for John Hayes) and Donnacha Ryan (for Stakhanov) would make the grade. For all their old school endeavour in the Thomond Park Saracens game, the McGahan problem of discipline came back to haunt them, and they essentially only won because Owen Farrell left his kicking boots at the IRB POTY ceremony. 

In the Vicarage Road game, the sight of Munster rumbling into contact and losing metres to a powerful bunch of forwards when they were a man up must have had Rob Penney tearing his hair out – they spent 4 minutes boshing and going backwards which ended in a wobbly drop goal attempt, and it was just the tactic Saracens would have welcomed. Why they didn’t try and use their extra numbers a bit more productively was mystifying.

The traditional Munster game is rather ill-suited to the current squad of forwards they have. And even if Penney gets his guys doing what he wants, do Munster have the ball carriers in the pack – they are fairly lightweight and only Cawlin and JC Stander would strike you as consistent getting-over-the-gainline guys.

The Backs

The Munster outside backs are most exciting, and using them to chase bombs is not really maximising resources – Earls, Zebo, Jones, Howlett and O’Dea look dynamite with ball in hand. It’s playing to your strengths to get them on the ball as much as possible instead of the comfortable, mucky repeated one-out rumbles into contact. At home to Saracens, who themselves have a high class backline, the most dangerous outside back by far looked like Keith Earls – but they never got him on the ball.

The Ireland-style aimless shuttling across the backline against Embra was easily repelled, with nary a dangerous angle or intelligent switch pass in sight. Simon Zebo must have looked at the type of opportunities the Ulster backs got in Northampton (Andrew Trimble running from blindside wing into first receiver and making a try for instance) and wondered would he ever get that chance in a big Thomond Park game.

Its hard to see it as a profitable long-term strategy to have your most dangerous players guarding rucks instead of passing and moving.

The Leader

Ah yes. The elephant in the room. Paul O’Connell is a massive leader, and one of the best captains Munster have ever had – he was perfect as the pack leader in the HEC years, and accepted nothing less than excellence in pursuit of success. Problem is, he actually isn’t that suited to the modern game – his ball-carrying is poor, and he does far too much of it. The Mole wrote about the sight of O’Connell calling one-out ruck ball to himself for Ireland, charging 70cm into contact, and forcing the likes of Fez and Jamie Heaslip to clear out the ruck – defences will take that all day long.

Does O’Connell have the desire to evolve his playing style at this stage of his career? His second row partner of so many red and green occasions is making a decent shift at it, despite not being in the same league as a player – but O’Connell has never been a follower. If he cannot adapt, and Penney prefers other players to execute his gameplan, he’s going to have a problem.

The Outhalf

Barnesy has talked about the flyhalf being the key cog in the machine, around which the spokes of wheel turn – his vision reflected how he played the game – head-up, looking for breaks and creating space – and was the reason why England preferred the more prosaic approach of Rob Andrew. That was the type of game they wanted to play. The illustration shows the problem for Rob Penney rather neatly. For his entire career, the Munster approach has been territorial, based on Ronan O’Gara putting the pack where they want to go. Penney wants to move on, but O’Gara simply does not have the skillset to execute a high tempo, handling based game any more.

Much as some might wish it not to be so, Ronan O’Gara is long past his best, and his on-field decision-making has deteriorated markedly in the last 12 months – he is nothing like the domineering figure of the past decade. Admittedly, his performance in Saracens was excellent out of hand, but in the context of a narrow gameplan and heavily unambitious opponents.

The reality is Penney is going to have to play someone else if he is to realise his vision – maybe Ian Keatley, maybe someone else altogether. The management of this issue, as we have said before, will largely define the success, or otherwise, of this season for Penney and Munster.

Culture

It’s clear how the senior players want to do it, and its getting results – they scored 4 tries in 40 mins against (an admittedly inept) Embra, and beat high-flying English/Saffer bosh overlords Saracens doing it their way. And after the success of the old approach against Saracens (home win and losing bonus point secured) – it’s going to be ever more difficult for Penney to further his case to the already sceptical dressing room bigwaigs now they can point to Munster’s 5 points against the English heavyweights. The mathematics of a defeat then 0 tries scored in 1.5 games of New Munster and 4 tries, then a win, then a losing bonus point in 2.5 games of Old Munster might look compelling, but there is a danger the wrong lesson will be learned. Munster might be well-positioned for a quarter-final slot, but what benefit would that be in the long term if they reverted to a gameplan that doesn’t suit their younger players (and future stars) to get there?

Its fine to say you need to earn the right to go wide, but that shouldn’t lead to the conclusion that you must win the set-piece first and only. Sure, its important, but manufacturing mismatches through intelligent running angles and offloading in the tackle to force more defenders into a ruck than attackers, thus creating numbers out wide, is far more relevant. If Munster go down to Toulon or Clermont in a HEC quarter-final with the mindset that they must win up-front before thinking about going wide, they will get mashed into the turf and badly beaten to boot. Leinster have showed in the last 2 seasons that a solid (if unspectacular) scrum and a good defensive lineout is more than enough to play an accurate and ambitious game – maybe the most important difference their is that was something the senior Leinster players not only were comfortable with, but welcomed.

On another point, the importance of the muck and bullets Shannon-type AIL style can be overdone at times – its a playing style from a different era which was succesful, but its highly unsuited to the current crop. And a perceived attachment by Munster fans to a certain style of play is nonsense – recall the reception Craig Gilroy got when playing Fiji – this is a chap who ruined Munster’s season last year, but his exciting and daring brand of rugby went straight to the hearts of the Thomond Park crowd. They swooned over him, and the cheer for him the next week in the Aviva was as warm and loud as the one for any player.

The fans who have got into Munster rugby in the professional era were fine with Craig Gilroy when they saw him play – they aren’t inherently wedded to any style – just a desire to win! Clearly Munster are in a rebuild phase, but the idea that they must play in a particular way, or its not really Munster is just untrue – their challenge is to play in a way which maximises their playing resources. The atmosphere in Thomond Park on a Saturday night will be equally as well-harnessed playing ambitious rugby as it is playing a fenzied forwards-based game.

Marrying a tough, if lightweight, looking pack to exciting and creative backs looks the only way forward for Munster if they want to win again in European rugby – the best teams, like Clermont, Leinster, Toulon, Leicester and Ulster, have mean-looking packs who can take you on up front, plus backs to finish it off – scoring in 3s isn’t going to win you the big pots.

One thing is for sure, unless Munster can find an identity they can move forward with, they aren’t going to move forward – the McGahan era petered out into embarrassments against Toulon and Ulster without a united front. Rob Penney has some young talent to work with, but a reversion to a game which works in the short term to the detriment of the long term is not a recipe for sustained success – maybe now is the time to make some painful decisions, which may be unpopular with senior players (and the media) and live up to the hard-ass reputation he has come over with.

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24 Comments

  1. Regarding O’Connell, while many of the points you make do sound true, he hasn’t actually played that many games this year. You rightly point out that his ball-carrying – more the quantity rather than the (ordinary) quality – went out of control for both Munster and Ireland, to the sides detriment. But there have been several times this (calendar) year where he has been utterly sensational.

    The recurring injuries are ominous; I think they are far more dangerous for his career (which, as a modern second row, could go on for several years with a bit of luck) than fears over his playing style. This is the guy who wanted to be a swimmer, is ridiculously good at golf, decided on rugby late on… adaptability is one of his strengths.

    Think you’re spot on about O’Gara, and the Munster style in general. They won HECs in 2006 and 2008 playing a style heavily contingent on them having an outrageously good pack that could splinter other sides best laid plans.

    Its fine to say you need to earn the right to go wide, but that shouldn’t lead to the conclusion that you must win the set-piece first and only. Sure, its important, but manufacturing mismatches through intelligent running angles and offloading in the tackle to force more defenders into a ruck than attackers, thus creating numbers out wide, is far more relevant.

    Agree with all of this. The first part, “earn the right to go wide,” is just one of many bullshit rugby clichés – forwards win matches, backs by how much, and so on – that occasionally get twisted round a match or passage of play which happens to align with them, without actually meaning much at all.

    I think I bored everyone stupid with a couple of massive posts on a blog a month or so ago, talking about how Schmidt’s passing focus had improved Leinster’s attacking play, because they were always confident about attacking at the weakest point in their opponents’ defensive line, wherever the breakdown was and wherever they thought was most vulnerable… suffice to say I could regurgitate the whole thing here as general tactical observations, and as an antidote to YHtEtRtGW, but I’ll spare everyone!

  2. Anonymous

     /  December 19, 2012

    One correction is in order: Dougie is captain this season.

  3. Shane

     /  December 19, 2012

    I share the hope that Munster’s game maximises their exciting potential. One correction though: Dougie is Captain this season. One of Penney’s first moves.

  4. In my opinion, Munster’s best performance under Penny so far was the game in Ravenhill in September. Ulster were already rolling along at that stage and put a really strong team out but Munster came pretty close to upsetting them in Belfast despite DOC being the only international to start. It was the most complete 80 mins of the Penny style.

    If you look down the spine of that team, you see players like Kilcoyne, Holland, Coughlan, Keatley and Hurley. Not forwards to put the frightners on Ulster but mobile guys with good hands. Keatley is not O’Gara in his pomp but he’s a good passer and poses a decent running threat. Hurley may not have the spark of Jones but he’s still a better reader of the game who hits the line really well. You’ve highlighted the Munster try before for the brilliant interventions of Earls, but it’s also interesting to see the involvement of Holland, Kilcoyne and Hurley and how generally excellent the Munster hands and passing are. Only once does a Munster player go looking for contact (Coughlan when he runs out of space) but the ball is recycled quickly.

    The HCup seemed to set things back. The team that faced Racing started three locks and was nearly out of sight early on and then lost a soft try because of handling errors. Then against Edinburgh reverting to mauling seemed to do the trick. I just wonder if the players faith in the new systems took a knock with those games.

    To my mind ROG has been forcing things a bit to try and prove he can adapt to the new style but it just might be too late for him.

    I’m hoping that resting some of the big names over the Interpros will allow the likes of Holland, Keatley and Hurley back in and we’ll see an uptake of the Penny style again.

  5. Tommy Kennedy

     /  December 19, 2012

    The obsession with ball carriers in Ireland continues. O Connell shouldn’t carry in offensive positions defiantly but in defensive positions it is ok because O Connell always ensures the ball is returned. But back to the ball carrying obsession amongst Ireland fans it hit its peak when people suggested Ferris should play at four so we could fit in another ball carrier in our back row. Not every forwards primary role is to carry the ball. O Connell supreme excellence at the line out, his rucking offensively and defensively and his very solid presence in the scrum make him crucial to the Munster pack and when on form the Irish pack. I don’t think anyone should question O Connell position in the team due his lack of hands or ball carrying ability. For me Healy. Best, O Brien and Heaslip are providing enough ball carriers in the Irish pack. There is more to a forwards job then what three or four decent carries in a game. Of course the crowd love these and the journos that do the player rankings on Sundays use them to rate many a forwards performance.

    Any way to sum up I’d rather O Brien or Heaslip or Healy carry every time as opposed to a ball handling lock who likes to carry but isn’t as good at line out etc……

  6. TJ Hooker

     /  December 19, 2012

    I think you got to the nub of the issue here – O’Gara. In the early rounds of the Rabo Keatley played most of the games (even when ROG returned to action, Keatley was shifted to fullback) and he looked a decent player. His style suited Penney’s gameplan – good hands and decent pace. In addition, as far as I recall, he was kicking well. At that stage Munster were going reasonably well.
    Then ROG returned just before the Heino started and Munster reverted to type. ROG cannot play anything other than traditional Munster style, and since this requires a dominant pack it hasn’t quite been happening for him.
    I feel for Penney. He’s in a difficult position. ROG, rightly, is a Munster legend, and there’s nobody better at getting their message out in the media (well, except perhaps for Drico), something that places pressure on the coach to pick a favourite son.
    As mentioned above, it didn’t help that Munster messed up in the Racing game, meaning that they had very little room for manouevre, making it easy to regress to the old ways. But I believe that Munster fans understand there is a transition period, and that risks are required. So if Penney just had the courage of his convictions…and, for me, and I get no pleasure from saying it, that entails leaving ROG behind…

    • Keatley was the highest percentage kicker in the PRO12 and the top scorer, as I remember, when ROG came back in. It was a really pity that the Edinburgh game didn’t go better for Keatley when ROG was injured-a less frantic second half would’ve put real pressure on ROG at that stage. As it was Munster’s lackluster first half meant ROG could just slot in.

      Keatley also did really well in his one outing at 12.

  7. Seiko

     /  December 20, 2012

    “Thing is, Rob Penney came on board loudly promising to introduce a more expansive style of play, but it looks like he has tempered those plans.”

    I don’t think so. I think the plan was to ADD an expansive style to what Munster already had. “Old style” Munster was never being put out the pasture. If it was, Foley wouldn’t still be the forwards coach (they could have reasigned him to Defense Coach).

    Keatley failed to play the conditions against Racing in France. That is why ROG is preferred for the Saracens game. Keatley is good, but generally against teams where defense would be a priority.

    • ROG played the first half against Racing, it was his pass that went to ground for the Racing try. Munster generally failed to play the conditions in Paris, wouldn’t lay it all at Keatley’s door.

      • seiko

         /  December 20, 2012

        O’Gara played the first 33 minutes against Racing. It was up to Keatley to adopt a game plan to suit the conditions when he went off. I’m not blaming him for the loss – just that isn’t the first time he failed to adopt the game for the conditions.

      • Ronan/Seiko, correct me if I am wrong, but Munster has only won one game with ROG starting this season, as I make it (Saracens at home). Clearly, the Penney gameplan through Keatley has something going for it.

      • No, ROG started the wins over Newport, Cardiff and Glasgow.

      • Cheers, I’m out of touch obviously. I even watched the Cardiff match!

  8. Seiko

     /  December 20, 2012

    cor. The last sentence about Keatly should have read “… against teams where defence would NOT be a priority.

  9. Rich

     /  December 20, 2012

    Munster in massive transition, but i suspect the problem is that whilst Penney is trying to expand slowly, players revert to type, what has worked in the past. In the last 20 mins we all know what they ll do, rog kick the corners and try and push over. That Munster way will never change I suspect, and it will be to their detriment a they are no where near physical enogght to out muscle teams. The French teams defend against them with ease, almost like a training game at times

    • Well, it’s adapt or die. Even if the players of old were still around, the game has moved on since 2006-08.

      I was surprised (pleasantly) that Munster held their own for the most part against Saracens (28 points each, I try each, 5 points each), I feared for them physically. Coming out even on physical stakes is great but there needs to be something beyond that. Saracens are a fairly limited team in the way they play. A less sympathetic draw this season (Clermont, Quins, Toulon) and Munster’s HCup could already be over.

      Fronting up AND getting the new gameplan into action is what they haven’t managed to do yet consistently. That’s why I referenced the Ulster game above-I felt its the only time so far where Munster have matched a good strong team on the physical stakes and also done things with the ball.

  10. This article is soft on McGahanball, and soft on the causes of McGahanball (Tony McGahan being the most important). McGahan had 4 seasons in charge and showed no sign of changing the team other than by moving Warwick to 15. Any other changes were injury-enforced (Murray to 9 inclusive, though fair play to him for sticking with it). The list of players who got worse under his tutelage is long, but for his criminal neglect of the tight 5, the loss of the S part of S&C, the hiring of Laurie Fisher as forwards coach, and the implementation of a wide-wide gameplan with a negligible number of moves and variations, most of them being of the skip-pass variety, he stands indicted as someone who may have known what he wanted, but certainly didn’t know how to achieve it. For a blog which is hyper-critical of a H Cup and Grand Slam winning coach for failing to plan and not making changes in an orderly fashion, this seeming sympathy for a coach who won nothing much and oversaw the decline and fall of a great Munster team is puzzling, to say the least.

    Sure, McGahan was, and remains, a good technical coach, particularly of defence, but he was no head coach. He is widely credited with helping the transition by an increased emphasis on the academy, which was important, although the most critical move in Munster’s re-development was taken by the IRFU when they decided to enter teams in the B&I Cup, which made the jump from AIL to Celtic League or H-Cup less chasmic. Anyway, he deserves some thanks for that, and no-one could fault him for effort, except perhaps in his last month in charge. Otherwise, I think he got more out of the deal than Munster did. Experience at one of Europe’s top clubs, and a stepping-stone to the Oz international coaching ticket.

    That grumble aside, this is a pretty good article on Munster’s current state. I think the ineffectiveness of the Penney game-plan on a wet day in Paris might well have spooked the horses. There was certainly little point in playing that way against Saracens with ROG at 10, as he seems to have reduced his repertoire to exclude the chip-kicks, cross-kicks and grubbers a non-running 10 should use to keep a blitz defence honest. I think he only used 1 chip-kick over the course of 2 matches (a kick which nearly resulted in a try). His performance may have improved and been error-free in the 2nd game, but that’s in part because he didn’t try anything, just hoped that Sarries would eventually lose a line-out. Uber-cagey, even for ROG.

    • Thanks Henry.

      We weren’t as down on McGahan as you were – we went into some detail when he announced he was leaving – you can find it here.

  11. pete (buachaill on eirne)

     /  December 20, 2012

    This is a great article and something I have been thinking about for the last few years.

    I fully believe that it is the old heads (POC and ROG primarily) who make Munster revert to the ‘old style’. I understand that it is a Munster tradition and it is a tried and tested method for them but when the laws changed in 2011 (the ones meaning you had to release a tackled player before competing for the ball) and made it easier for the attacking team to do just that; Munster have not adapted until now and even now it is only really accomplished when ROG is not playing.

    Leinster embraced the newer up tempo game that the rules favoured along with many other teams and they reaped the rewards. Teams like Munster, Ireland and many English teams did not.

    More has changed however; now that Munster have lost so much of the grunt of their pack they are no longer that great at the old style. Their strengths should be playing this new game with exciting backs running intelligent lines and offloading in to space however we see small glimpses of this and at the slightest sense of failure the pack reverts (usually at the command of POC or ROG).

    POC is a legend and when he played those 2 games this season he was a mamoth, his lineout work, mauling and rucking are great but he is not a modern player. He is not a good carrier (as many have said this is not critical) but more importantly he is not an intelligent footballer/good handler of the ball. At one point I saw Donnacha Ryan step left draw his man and just before contact pop the ball back to his right where Sherry ran on to the ball in to the space Ryan had just vacated. Unbelievable skill and vision! I can not see POC ever being capable of doing that.

    I think Penny needs to really man up and make the hard choices. I am sure he is under all sorts of pressure but he does not want to play the kinda rugby that Munster are associated with. He’d love there to be elements of it but he does not want to be that archaic/one dimensional. Howlett as captain is telling as of all the senior Munster players he was obviously the one most open to playing that kind of game and now Munster need to embrace this further. Unleash guys like Zebo and Earls. Stop this stupid and blunt passing from side to side and occassionally throwing in a very unconcealed screen pass.

    Munster need to get creative. Munster need to become more open minded.

    That doesn’t mean just leaving some forwards on the wing (which is quite a poor tactic IMO) it means coming up with smart moves and variants on those moves. It means giving guys the license to run lines they see. It means training guys in to becoming decision makers and smart players rather than playing to type.

    Munster are so close to making a huge step they just need to have a little more faith.
    Embrace modern rugby, it’s been around since 2010/11!

    • Rich

       /  December 23, 2012

      Agree 100% with this – on the money – Howlett Captaining the side speaks volumes.

  12. Seiko

     /  December 20, 2012

    Worth listening to this interview with Rob Penney just after the Edinburgh HCup game on Newstalk (24th October, 2012). (Interview where Penney asked the interviewer what is old style Munster rugby)!

    [audio src="http://podcasts.newstalk.ie/newstalk/media_uploads/upload_mp3/2410rugby.mp3" /]

    Keith Wood has a bit of a rant about people claiming that Munster only played 10 man rugby in the past.

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