We joked back in May 2012 that “Penney is … a sacrificial lamb who will get to soak up all the ire of the fans by continuing Ludd’s work of the last 18 months and retiring the Liginds one by one and then buggering off to let Axel take over once the newbies have been transitioned in”.
Well, looks like we were right. While Penney was offered only a one year contract (technically, an optional extension), Axel is getting two, with an option of one more. Not that there is anything wrong with that in and of itself. Rugby is a business and its incumbent upon the chief executive(s) of any business to put in place the management/leadership structure that leads to the most success. If the Munster hierarchy have decided that Axel is better placed than Penney to deliver what Munster ultimately need (silverware) then they have their man in place. Now he just has to go and do it.
Penney was brought in largely because of his work in Canterbury at underage and development level, and was charged with bringing the likes of Tommy O’Donnell, Mike Sherry and Peter O’Mahony up to Heineken Cup level and restore the team’s playing identity. Much of that has been done, and he leaves Munster in a much better place than when he took over. Axel Foley takes over a team with a winning mentality and a core of good players who will be around for years to come. The core of his pack are of the right age profile, and where there are a couple of old lags in wind-down, succession looks to be being managed. Paul O’Connell will be around until 2016 and BJ Botha will still be here next season and when he does retire, Stephen Archer should be ready to take over (presuming his development over the last 12 months continues). Dave Foley has stepped up the rungs to ease O’Callaghan further out of the picture and Robin Copeland should smoothly take over from the evergreen James Coughlan, who continues to be productive.
The half-back situation is also positive, with Hanrahan on track to take over from Ian Keatley, and Penney has been wise not to rush this process. He’ll be ready when he’s ready, and he’s having a fine campaign in the Pro12 in the meantime.
His main issue- as is the case for seemingly every Munster coach since the year dot – will be recruiting and developing capable centres to provide a threat and most importantly, bring the lethal strike runners Simon Zebo and Keith Earls onto the ball as much as possible. Casey Laulala is heading for the exit and it looks increasingly like James Downey will be joining him. Foley will need to recruit, and recruit well.
The real fascination will lie in what direction Foley will take the team. Will he tear up the current script and start anew? Or is he a ‘continuity’ man As tempting as it is to see the move as a coup d’etat on Foley’s part, it’s unlikely to be the case. The other temptation is to buy the stereotype of Foley as the ultimate old-school Munster forward who will bring their game back to the dark ages. “We’ve had 10 man rugby, now you’re playing 9-man rugby – when will this end?” “When we find a number eight that can kick.” But that looks over-simplified; Foley was a smart rugby player who got by on his ability to read of the game, and presumably brings those qualities to the table as a coach.
However, it does seem unlikely that he’s a disciple of Penneyball in all its wonderful purity. He poured cold water on Ger Gilroy’s attempts to get him to say Munster’s success wasn’t always forward oriented on Newstalk last night. But while Munster never looked totally comfortable with Penney’s gameplan, it was hard to see exactly how else they could succeed. Their pack isn’t really capable of grinding others into the dirt, but is big on mobility and athleticism. The centres rather than the forwards were the main obstacles to it succeeding. It’s probably the end to the idea of Donncha O’Callaghan hanging out on the wing looking for the ball, but hopefully some of the spirit of dynamic forward play will be retained.
He should also benefit from much goodwill from the public and media. As a very fondly remembered player (the Leinster fans’ forum includes Axel Foley in every poll as a reference to Munster fans voting for him in every ‘greatest ever’ list), and the only Irish head coach at provincial level, the Munster faithful will be fully behind him, and he should have no trouble with a meeja who have been campaigning for him to get this gig since before Rob Penney took over. This is one coach everyone wants to see succeed. But as every coach knows, it’s a different pressure being the top man than one of the coaching team.
Let’s hope one of the brightest young Irish coaches around can build on Penney’s groundwork – and by Gawd it’s nice to see an Irishman coaching one of the provinces.