Two More Years. Or Maybe Just One.

Rob Penney’s contract is up for renewal at the end of the season, and it would appear that his getting a new one is far from a done deal.  Shane Horgan and Liam Toland were of the opinion on the recent Second Captains podcast that, ridiculous though it may sound, the double header against Perpignan would go a long way to deciding whether he got one or not.  That seems a bit short-termist to us as it won’t even seal the fate of Munster in the Heineken Cup with the probably pivotal trip to Kingsholm still to come.

It looks to us to be an erroneous decision not to renew his contract, though we’d be interested to get Munster fans’ take on it.  Penney is halfway through a pretty thorough rebuilding job and is trying to establish a new playing identity around which Munster can build a sustainable future.  No longer in possession of a juggernaut pack and corner-dominating fly-half, this Munster vintage’s strengths lie in their strike runners out wide, Keith Earls, Simon Zebo and, more fitfully, Felix Jones.  And don’t forget that Peter O’Mahony played on the wing in an AIL final.  Joking aside, the likes of O’Mahony and Tommy O’Donnell are also best served getting the ball a bit further out from the ruck and Conor Murray has the skills to get them the ball there.  It all signals a group of players best served by moving the point of attack.

Unfortunately it hasn’t always been well implemented and Shane Horgan, a man who knows a thing or two about back play, was particularly scathing of the lateral nature of much of Munster’s attack.  They want to move it wide, but just can’t seem to get forward in doing so.  It’s all side-to-side and no one straightening the line or commiting defenders.  At times, the apparently simple act of passing in front of the player running onto the ball has proved too difficult.

Recruiting quality centres has been an issue for Munster as far back as we can remember and remains one today.  Casey Laulala has a streak of genius in him but Munster haven’t really been able to get on his wavelength.  His unpredictability at times appears to baffle his team-mates as much as opponents.  It’s an indictment of the coaching staff that they haven’t made more of his ability. If he was at Leinster, we’d imagine Sean Cronin and Sean O’Brien would track his lines as if tied to him by invisible ropes.

Lots of teething problems then, but results have been decent (and better than in the previous regime, at least at European level).  Munster went deeper in the Heineken Cup than any other Irish province last season and almost made the final in improbable circumstances.  It’s too easy to buy the narrative that O’Connell and O’Gara took the team in a new (or should that be old?) direction for the rousing performances in the Stoop and Bordeaux, and it’s one we don’t really buy.  The win in the Stoop was Penney-ball as it should be played, and it’s no surprise that it coincided with James Downey having his best match for Munster and team-mates suddenly becoming alive to the possibilities of playing off Laulala.  Some of the performances in the Pro12 were beyond dreadful and a sixth place finish was poor, but this season Munster have turned that around and sit on top of the log.

This year’s Heineken Cup has yet to see Munster hit top gear and the loss to Edinburgh was careless, but it’s far from beyond rescuing.  Gloucester and Perpignan are eminently beatable on the road, and the French seem utterly disinterested in the zombie HEC – this year’s pot is there for the taking.

It’s easy to forget just how shambolic things were when he arrived.  Munster had been left in a curious no-man’s land by McGahan’s half-baked tactics, and Penney had a job in restoring confidence to some players.  The obvious example is Conor Murray, whose early promise had been derailed by McGahan’s intention of deploying him as a fourth backrow.  Under Penney he has been able to get his natural rhythm going again, and has emerged as an elite player.

Penney’s tenure has the looks of a job half-done and it would seem strange to pull the rug from him now.  Did Munster really expect to turn things around more emphatically than this?   And if they do replace him, do they bring in someone to continue in a similar direction, or someone to start again?  Penney spoke in his first few months about how when you change approach you can find yourself ‘un the put’, but when you emerge from the put you find yourself in a better place than you ever were before.  Another change of direction now and Munster may find themselves struggling to ever emerge from the put.

He came on board with a reputation from the Crusaders of bringing younger players through the academy into Super Rugby (including the new world POTY), and in his time Munster havebrought through to the first team the likes of James Cronin, Paddy Butler, Tommy O’Donnell and JJ Hanrahan. The likes of Sherry, Archer, O’Mahony, Zebo and Murray have improved under his charge as well.

Munster fans seem mostly, if a little begrudgingly, on board with Project Penney – the pack just isn’t there to play the type of 10-man dross Frankie and co. want to see. On the other hand, Simon Mannix doesn’t seem to be having much impact – perhaps a shake-up of the coaching ticket, bringing in a backs coach of some repute, is the way forward. Don’t suppose Eddie has tired of blogging and wants to get that tracksuit back on?

Joking aside (for now), is finance a factor? Penney came with a big reputation and was unlikely to be cheap, and Munster are bleeding money like an Irish bank – do they just need to save a bit of cash? It would seem like a false economy, but who knows. A big name to replace Laulala for next season is unlikely, and more development from within is surely the way to go – Penney is the man for that in our eyes. If we are worried about tying him down with the HEC on the chopping block, give him one more year – he deserves it.

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  1. Guiseppe

     /  December 11, 2013

    Give Penney two more years. He as a plan in place and the players are starting to adapt to it. He has a lot of very young players on his hands who are only just being exposed to top level rugby since he arrived but they seem to be improving nicely.

    Mannix on the other hand has to go.

    • Scrumdog

       /  December 11, 2013

      Have to agree with all of the above and not with Horgan or Toland. Penney is the way forward and if Munster want to see more players making the Irish squad they are going to have to start sticking with a plan and executing with some ‘game intelligence’ to fit in with the higher skill sets standard demanded by Joe Schmidt. Penney is hardly the backs coach…and has them looking so redundant, Mannix has to be responsible for the backline malaise..but it may also have a lot to do with the players who don’t seem to have a good ‘collective balance’ about them. A quality backs coach may not be the answer in making a silk purse from what might be a sow’s ear?
      There’s a reason, other than injuries, why the national squad is bereft of Munster players at the moment and that’s because the new reality is that there’s few players of international caliber as yet and they are on a learning curve. With Penney remaining, that will improve as he brings on the young lads and understands what Schmidt requires going forward.

  2. Given that every sod knows Munster weren’t going to be at a peak last year, this year and maybe not for another couple – come what may – if Penney hasn’t done well enough (results-wise, and generally) to get a new contract, then my questions is: what constitutes well enough?

    And, as well as the results, he’s taking the team through a massive change in style that both suits the younger players and is a more rounded, modern (and practical) way to play.

    OK, so we don’t know what goes on behind the scenes, how much everyone gets on, etc, but beyond that I find it unfathomable they might cut ties with him.

    • Bit off topic here, but since you mentioned it in the post: exactly how bad are Munster’s finances?

      • ruckinhell

         /  December 11, 2013

        Munster are in dire straights indeed, something not being mentioned at present.

        There’s an interesting line in the IRFU Annual Report regarding repayment for Thomond Park. As far as I can tell, Munster were unable to repay the majority of the planned 2012 repayment on the development loan and it’s rolled over to 2013. Munster therefore owe €9.8 million in total to the IRFU and €6.9 million of this is supposed to be repaid within 1 year. I can’t say what other debts the branch has but this is a serious millstone around our neck.

        Click to access IRFU_Annual_Report_2012-13.pdf

        When you compare us to Leinster it is incredible how little has been built upon the glory years, one large stadium aside. Leinster on the other hand seem to be in very good knick indeed.

        • We were fortunate enough to be given a tour of the RDS recently, and Leinster’s conservatism regarding stadium development was striking – the desire not to end up in debt, either externally or centrally, and to do things incrementally, really stuck out. Ulster have done something similar.

          You wonder how much they have looked at Munster and learned from their experience. In that sense, Munster’s success cycle correlation with the Celtic Tiger was very unfortunate.

          • In fairness to Munster, they didn’t have a Peace and Reconciliation fund (insert your own Limerick joke here, I double dare you) to build the Debt Star for them, as per Ravenhill, and they didn’t have a benefactor to write them a 2.5 million euro cheque to fit them out with a shiny new training centre, as per Leinster in the UCD campus.

          • Surely you mean Rory McIlroy? Doesn’t he pay Ruan Pienaar? (joke!)

          • Keith

             /  December 12, 2013

            salmsonconnacht – but they did have the government paying for their state of the art training facilities in UL, presumably.

        • Bueller

           /  December 11, 2013

          At the time the IRFU were on board for Thomond to gain an additional International (second tier November or midweek touring side) each season and this was factored in to go a log way in terms of loan repayments. These have now been removed from the schedule due to the exclusive rights of the Aviva deal.
          Not to pin anything on the IRFU as Munster should have had the fore-sight not to get themselves into this situation but the distribution of funds within the IRFU structure seems bizarre. Thomond came in at approx €25m for a 25,000 seater….The Aviva came in at over €420m for 50,000. Obviously a higher spec is required for the international stadium but it does seem highly disproportionate. Would the money not have been better spent upgrading each of the provincial stadiums with a view to the impending RWC bid and a few less glass panels on Lansdowne Road?

          • This is interesting – and we posted on this before when we talked about Munster’s accounts. Reliance on a November game seemed like poor planning, but if they were told it was coming, you can have sympathy.

            Another question is why the IRFU ever agreed to that? Forget about the Aviva deal, did they expect Ulster and Leinster to sit back and not demand games of their own if Munster were getting one every November? It just seems like such an unsustainable thing to promise to me

          • Ronin

             /  December 11, 2013

            Did leinster pay proportionately towards the cost of Lansdowne Rd. Having a 50k stadium on tap for the big games is not the same as having to bear most of the costs for your own mid-sized one and to then get shafted on the one implicit subsidy (the second tier internationals).

          • They pay rent for it – presumably it’s available for Ulster and Munster if they want it too

          • seiko

             /  December 12, 2013

            If Lansdowne Rd was not on Leinster’s doorstep, they would have had to build a stadium. They did try and failed to do something with Donnybrook – its more likely they learned their lesson from that.

            According to Garret Fitzgerald at the last Munster AGM, the issue is that the IRFU will not allow Munster to host touring teams in November (not just autumn internationals) because they were affecting ticket sales for the Aviva. He said that Munster apply regularly do this, but are religiously turned down by the IRFU. They cleared over 500K for the AB & Australia games each (which is the amount Munster’s repayments have been reduced each year).

            I’d imagine the return will be better this year anyway. Thomond Park had a good bit of other usage this year, The Boss, Rugby League & Limerick FC all played there.

            Penney will be given a new contract. Munster (& Leinster for that matter) don’t do soccer style changing the manager every 2 minutes.

            I think he is doing a pretty good job with a very young and inexperienced squad.

          • Patrick O'Riordan

             /  December 13, 2013

            Before the redevelopment of Ravenhill, a shared use stadium (at the Maze) for rugby, GAA and football was on the cards and the IRFU promised an autumn international for this as well. In fairness, I can’t remember the relative timings and if Thomond Park came up after the Maze stadium idea bit the dust.

  3. Bueller

     /  December 11, 2013

    Penney has been a class act since he arrived. Speaks well and always makes the right noises about the style of play. They are this season beginning to put it together on the field too (the odd Rabo kick-fest aside). Seems to be a pretty happy camp behind the scenes and most of the players seem to be getting a fair shot in terms of game time etc. I think his best attribute seems to be his rotation policies and bringing a lot of the fringe players through. Even Ivan Dineen is looking half decent these days (although still a long way off HEC level). Not at the level of Leinster or Ulster but Munster seem to have a bit of strength in depth in most positions for the first time in years with a decent A side.
    All this being said they have still played a fair amount of uninspiring rugby this season but still seem to be winning even when playing poorly which can only be a good sign.
    I would lock him down for 2 seasons if possible.
    The one question I might have with him is the lack of trust he seems to have in CJ Stander, who could be a great addition at 6 if used properly. With Dougall looking like a good (if limited) work-horse of a 7 I would be tempted to move POM to 8 with Standers pace and power at 6, and Caughlin, O’Donnell or Dave O’Callaghan on the bench.

    • Barry

       /  December 11, 2013

      Good point re: Stander – especially now that they’re recruited Robin Copeland for next season. Someone is going to Connacht?

      • We hear they consider Stander’s work-rate on the low side. Any time the Munster backrow gets mentioned, legions declare Stander potentially world class. Yet he barely gets off the bench, and this is all whlie Tommy O’Donnell is injured. Is he really that good? We described him as ‘either the next Tom Croft or the next Clinton Huppert’. We’re still no clearer on which it is.

      • Bueller

         /  December 11, 2013

        Ya there seems to be an over-load of ‘quite good’ back-rows in Munster. Not sure if Connacht need anyone as their starting backrow is pretty tastey but you’d imagine someone will be walking form Munster in some direction (unless Coughlan is considering retirement at 34, although he still has another year on his contract I think). Back-row doesnt seem to be an issue in any of the provinces. Munster have at least 2 if not 3 quality units as do Leinster, Connacht and Ulster both have very impressive first choices, not sure about what they have in reserve though?

        • Guiseppe

           /  December 11, 2013

          Coughlan has another year left on his contract.
          Standers deal is up at the end of this season and I’d assume it’ll be renewed, he has made all the right noises about being happy in Limerick and there can’t be too many places he can go with Olympic standard training facilities (His wife is a swimmer aiming for the next Olympics). I don’t believe he needs to much longer to qualify for Ireland (open to correction).

          With Copeland coming in the likes of Butler and Ronan might move on, depth in numbers for Connacht potentially?

          • No pressing need for backrows (especially 6s) at the Sportsground but with Kearney only a toddler in career terms, Muldowney disappointing so far, and septuagenarian Michael Swift in his 48th consecutive season at the province, I’d say we might be in the market for a lock. Being Munster royalty and probably good (and bulky) enough to get a contract in France, there’s probably no chance Billy Holland would come north when his contract’s up in the summer, but he’d be a good addition.

          • connachtexile

             /  December 11, 2013

            Someone said Copeland was most likely brought in to replace Donnacha Ryan who is linked with Perpignan. Makes sense if you look at it like that. As for Griffin really hope he stays. We need to keep our better players.

  4. Alex

     /  December 11, 2013

    Sadly agreed on Mannix. I’ve not the wherewithall to plough through Racing Metro’s try scoring exploits on Youtube but the worrying reversion to side to side can’t continue to be pinned on McGahan two years down the line.

    Would be disastrous to think about ditching Penney now, especially for something as short sighted as money. The guy came straight out at the beginning and said that this would be a long haul and he was in for it. He’s made good on that promise so far despite inhereting a squad not of his own choice and with some worrying skills gaps.

    Need to see this one through, ideally 2 year extension before the French gravy train starts making passes and if Foley felt the need to cut his teeth elsewhere for a while and then return arm in arm with ROG a few years down the line, then what harm!

  5. osheaf01

     /  December 11, 2013

    Commenting as a Munster fan, I think he’s doing a great job, after the mess McGahan left. The pack simply isn’t non-pareil anymore, so the style had to change a bit anyway. We’re not quite at Leinster’s level, yet, but I’d quietly fancy our chances if we met Ulster in the HEC. He should definitely get 2 more years if he wants them.

  6. ruckinhell

     /  December 11, 2013

    You’ve hit the nail on the head on several points Whiff. I hear from a normally reliable and well place source that he’s been given a 1 year extension but it’s odd that this hasn’t been announced yet.

    He has a clear vision of how he wants the game played but I wonder if all the team have been able to adapt to it. Bizarrely, DOC of all the old guard seems best suited to this game and he’s been working his socks off to get from midfield scrums to the mini pod that Penney likes on the 5 metre zone near each touchline. His meters run with the ball stats have been off the charts this year (hitting as high as 5 or 6 meters per game at times!). The passing and movement on the other hand has been shoddy and almost farcical at times. I’d be embarrassed at Junior level with some of the behind the player passes which were made on Sunday.

    Re Lualuala, my understanding is that Eoin Griffin is the most likely replacement. A decent player, if very injury prone. Munster are farked financially, the nutters on Munsterfans can demand that we sign Conrad Smith or Ma’a Nonu, but Irish qualified and low cost purchases are unfortunately our lot for the foreseeable future while we have big debt around our necks. Onwards and upwards!

    • “hitting as high as 5 or 6 meters per game at times!”

      You’re a gas man ruckinhell, a gas man altogether.

      O’Callaghan has appeared energised by Penney’s coaching and his willingness to reinvent himself at 34 is impressive.

    • Re: Eoin Griffin, as a Connacht fan I hope this doesn’t happen, but with Uncle Joe insisting Henshaw is a 13 this might make sense for Griffin, and Munster would be nuts not to be looking at him. Mind you when Gavin Duffy was interviewed after the Toulouse game he included Griffin in a list of young backs who’ve signed new deals with Connacht. Could have just been the euphoria talking though.

      • ruckinhekk

         /  December 11, 2013

        WOC, I’m only ball hopping re DOC, he’s playing well ATM and a fine lock to have around with Ryan out.

        My understanding is that Griffin has told Connacht he wants out and IRFU are trying to keep him in house. Watch this space once the Casey Grenoble deal is finalised.

    • Leinsterlion

       /  December 12, 2013

      Why are Munster getting rid of Lualala? He’s their best back by a mile, its not his fault he’s surrounded by duffers who couldnt run a line to save their lives. Eoin Griffin is hardly a like for like replacement. Bad move by Munster, good for Ireland though.

      • Don’t think they’re “getting rid”, more a case of Greneoble Showing Him The Money.

        • Leinsterlion

           /  December 12, 2013

          Look at Montpellier baclkine, two thirteens in Ranger and Tuitivake, Olivier and Ebershon at twelve, it doenst make sense for them to “throw the money” at him. He couldnt be asking that much more, and Munster if they dont go the big money international route will in essence be replacing him with an unknown commidity and Griffin, stupid, if you ask me.

          • Leinsterlion

             /  December 12, 2013

            Sorry, read Grenoble as Montepellier, yeah Munster wouldnt be able to outbid them, Grenoble dont have much of a backline.

  7. Jimini

     /  December 11, 2013

    Guiseppe. Stander mentioned about contract in question 8.

  8. Cian

     /  December 11, 2013

    I think Munster should be biting Penney’s hand off if he’s happy to stay around for another two years. Not everything is going well, and I’d agree with Ruckinhell’s qualms about the team adapting the game plan, but I think the strength in depth that Penney has cultivated is outstanding. We lost our first choice halfbacks early on in a must-win H-Cup game last weekend and there were no problems, our replacement front row won a penalty try, and the embarrassment of back row and wing options are well documented.

    The current 1st XV don’t stack up too well against the 2006-2008 equivalent, as they were never likely to given the mass exodus of top class players, but Penney can’t do a whole lot about that. If Munster can be competing in the Rabo playoffs and doing themselves justice in the crunch H-Cup matches for the next year or two I’d be happy. If the game plan starts clicking we can hope for more than that.

  9. Eoinsm

     /  December 11, 2013

    I would seriously hope that Penney will be given more time. He has majorly improved in terms of Pro12 performance and I don’t think a poor showing in the Heineken Cup this year should necessitate a change for two reasons:

    1) Last year Munster exceeded even the most optimistic of fans’ expectations in quarter and semi finals, given their form in the pro12. They were, in my opinion, 2 backs-against-the-wall performances in the context of the general teething/confusion last season.

    2) As a Munster fan, of course it is difficult to acknowledge that we are no longer one of the dominant forces in European rugby but I have to acknowledge that the game has moved on and the performances of Leinster and Ulster last weekend are the culmination of years of evolving their game/style. Rome wasn’t built in a day and all that but Munster are potentially years behind their rivals in terms of developing this style. I, for one, have the patience to wait, if it means we could see a return to glory!

    Another concern is (according to people I have spoken to – I have no knowledge of what goes on at grass roots level) that there is a seeming adherence to the traditional Munster values at underage level, which may be reflected in the dominance of Ulster/Leinster for the underage national teams. If there isn’t a genuine attempt to develop rugby in Munster at all levels to the modern game, the senior team and management will always be playing catch-up. Again I reiterate that this is not based on first hand knowledge but from conversation – could be completely wrong!

  10. Scrumdog

     /  December 11, 2013

    Great to see everyone is behind keeping Joe Penney!

  11. Ciano

     /  December 11, 2013

    nah man, we need to go back to the pishin

    • osheaf01

       /  December 12, 2013

      ‘Tis “pashun”, alright?

      In Leinster dialect, ignorance, mon, is, loike, sooo totally awesome – NOT!

  12. hulkinator

     /  December 12, 2013

    I’d also like to see him stay on for 2 years at least. Munster are now going in the right direction.

    The improvement in some of the players under Penney has been massive. Tommy O’Donnell was getting splinters in his arse for years, warming the bench and now he looks undroppable and an Ireland contender.

    One area of concern is the back play but Penney himself mentioned that it wasn’t good enough.

    Ideally I’d like to see Penneys contract extended and him bring in a QUALITY backs/attack coach to implement his gameplan. 2 new centers are also needed.

    The worrying thing about this are the old Munster players who want to see Munster grind out wins like they used to. They don’t get it that Munster have different type of players these days and are moving towards a NZ style, like the rest of the provinces.

  13. One of the things I struggle to understand with Munster is the lack of evidence of focus on skills improvement along with Penney’s tactical changes.

    The basic skill levels of the Munster squad remains pretty poor (Murray, POM and Earls excepted) – is there a dedicated skills coach there or is Penney doing this himself?

    The tactical change was well overdue and is absolutely the right thing to do but after this amount of time getting these tactics built into the teams psyche, how is it that their skills are still so lacking? I don’t really accept the line about lack of skills throughout the underage groups. A team of professionals working every day should surely be able to improve their basic skillset?

    If you compare Leinster’s improvement in roughly the same amount of time – yes the tactical change was implemented but the focus was on “becoming the best passing side in Europe” i.e. tactics are all well and good, but useless without the skillset to back it up, so Schmidt and the players repeated, ad naseum, skills such as passing until they were muscle memory.

    Why hasn’t that happened in Munster? That would be my only question before giving Penney a contract extension – what does he plan to do (or who does he want to recruit) to improve basic skills within the squad?

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