Enter Axel

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.

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34 Comments

  1. curates_egg

     /  February 20, 2014

    Has always been hard to avoid the suspicion that Penney was just appointed to keep the seat warm for Foley. The one year extension thing seemed to confirm this.

    Foley’s comments on accepting the appointment definitely include a thinly-veiled dig at the current gameplan and do not suggest he is inclined towards much continuity: http://www.irishtimes.com/sport/rugby/anthony-foley-s-coronation-comes-a-year-early-1.1697717 It will be interesting to see who is appointed to work with him though but he is obviously highly regarded. The king is now coronated and most of the brave and faithful seem very happy anyway.

  2. Cian

     /  February 20, 2014

    While it is true that Axel should receive a lot of goodwill from fans and media, almost every other Munster fan I know is worried and unhappy about Penney’s departure. He was doing a very good job in almost all areas, perhaps most noticeably in development of depth and as scrum coach. I hope Foley excels, but I couldn’t really give a damn about his being Irish or ‘steeped in Munster culture’, I just want Munster to get the best coaching they possibly can.

  3. connachtexile

     /  February 20, 2014

    I think it was always on the cards as he is the first coach actualy groomed by a province to take over. With Doak in Ulster, McFarland in Connacht and Girvan Dempsey in Leinster all being groomed by their respective provinces I’ll be keeping an especially close eye on him as I’m sure will the other provinces to see how this works out. Next season should be intriguing.

    • I’d say Leo will probably leap-frog Girve in the pecking order. It’s an indication of how highly his rugby brain is rated that he’s being parachuted straight into the forwards coach job for next season.

      • connachtexile

         /  February 20, 2014

        Good point about Cullen. I’d say a lot of province’s will be keenly watching Foley and how he does as he’s the first one off the professional coaching conver belt for the provinces since Eric Elwood (who did well for Connacht) with all others either coming from the AIL or overseas. If Foley can delvier silverware I’d expect the likes of Doak, McFarland/Carolan and Cullen/Dempsey to be given the nod next time. The only reason McFarland didn’t get it this tme from Connacht is we wanted an outsider after two internal promotions before in Bradley & then Elwood. With all the provinces apart from Munster now managed by Kiwi’s I expect an internal member of the coaching staff to fill one of the 3 postions next time round when MOC, Lam or Anscombe go.

        • Lop12

           /  February 20, 2014

          Id take BOD down in Limerick to assist Foley if the Leinster bretheren would prefer to see Girve progression continue!!

        • Lop12

           /  February 20, 2014

          BTW. My money would be on an ex Connacht man in Jackman potentially as a live contender for Connacht post Lam.

          • connachtexile

             /  February 20, 2014

            Jackman made some pretty deogatory comments in his autobiography about Connacht. No sure if a section of our support would be big on him coming back after that. Personally I’ve no problems with him but I think he only has eyes for the Leinster job.

    • Patrick O'Riordan

       /  February 20, 2014

      Mark McCall was groomed by Ulster to take over following his role as Solomons number 2. However McCall had less coaching experience and less time away from the team as a player than Foley as one of the issues McCall allegedly had was being too close to some of the players.

  4. Mike

     /  February 20, 2014

    Lots of pressure on Foley IMO. If you get rid of a coach who is top of the league, still in Europe and managing the transition of the squad, you’d better be good.

  5. Still very disappointed to see Penney go, but such is life. Hopefully Foley will have us playing expansive rugby which makes the most of the footballing ability in our pack and the strike runners we have in abundance out wide. His Munster A team played some good stuff, and he was a pretty dashing player by inclination if not in physique (a number 8 who used to chip and chase…) so I don’t see why not.

    On the centre dilemma, it’s interesting to see that Munster are currently experimenting with Keatley and Hurley at 12, both of whom are a natural fit for the position (albeit very different styles of 12). Keatley is a classic second five-eight, while Hurley looks like he could be an excellent boshing 12. The position is the most likely to maximise both their skills: for Keatley, his distribution, pace, and ability to pick a line, for Hurley, his physical strength and top-notch offloading skills. 12 would also mask Hurley’s lack of acceleration. Whether it masks Keatley’s (relative) weaknesses in decision-making and defence is another question.

    13, of course, remains a dilemma. It’ll be very interesting to see if Axel rates Earls there. I know it’s not a popular opinion below the line on this blog, but if he could get a run of games there, I’d be very comfortable with him at Heineken Cup level. Van Den Heever is another option there, seemingly.

  6. Bueller

     /  February 20, 2014

    I’d trust that Foley has enough coaching experience at this stage to take on the job and he was an exceptionally clever player but Penney’s axing (if that is what happened) would seem completely unfounded, with Munster in their best position in years with a relatively limited bunch of players.
    On a separate note-I’m not sold on Robin Copeland, a serious athlete but not the best footballer in the world and not the most effective in the tight. Paddy Butler looks a better prospect when fit.
    As you said recruitment of centres is the main problem. Cian Bohane looks good but I’d be surprised if he really steps up a further level and Ivan Dineen is probably at his ceiling at he moment.

    • Leinsterlion

       /  February 20, 2014

      Copeland to 12? BOSH, gainline, kpi’s, Robin Bill Williams, sick offload in traffic brah. Barnesy is moist at the thought.

    • Lop12

       /  February 20, 2014

      Butler a fine prospect but doesnt appear to have trained on, and you are basing a lot on potential, because strictly on form lines he has proven little to compare to Copeland at HEC & Pro 12 level.

  7. ruckinhell

     /  February 20, 2014

    I was gutted when I heard Penney left, although I have since heard from a reliable source that this wasn’t a case of Munster screwing Penney over to put Axel in the position- a genuine offer was made to Penney that everyone thought was more than acceptable at the time and the dynamics were changed an external offer for more money and a longer tenure.

    There’s been a lot of guff about how Penney and Foley had a “really poor working relationship” mostly backed up by referring to awkward looking shots of the management team with Foley gruffly aloof. Anyone who has spent more than 5 seconds in his company will know that this is his default setting! These guys are professionals and the feedback I’ve heard is that the working relationship was professional and efficient. You can’t ask for any more.

    Personally I think he is taking this job a bit too early and would have benefitted from some time outside of Munster but we are where we are. The key priorities for me would be an excellent, external backs coach and a top class scrum coach as this is currently handled by Penney and has turned into a serious weapon for the team.

    Foley has a solid track record to date. He took over Munster A in the first B&I Cup and played a big part in making this squad an important part of Munster rugby. A lot of the current starters were graduates of that crop. It’s also important to note that this team played “heads up” and dynamic rugby under Foley: It wasn’t up the jumper and maul the way to the line stuff. He then moved over to defence coach and a big jump in performance was noted, ditto when he took over the forwards. He has a very solid upwards curve in performance as a coach and I hope he can continue this trend.

  8. Munstermicko

     /  February 20, 2014

    I have my Munster jersey off and swinging from my left hand above my head, while my right beats upon my hairy chest whist I bellow PASHUN and hear my voice echoe between the peaks of the Galtee’s, scattering my ewes across the valley.

    GWAN AXEL!

    Would have loved to read a Conor George take on this but it appears he is without a medium since he left the daily bugle

    • connachtexile

       /  February 20, 2014

      He wouldn’t have being half as eloquent as you Munstermicko

    • curates_egg

       /  February 20, 2014

      Shannon is a long way from Cork. CG won’t be happy until ROG is given the keys. #jokeshop

    • Amiga500

       /  February 20, 2014

      The PASHUN of Axel

      “I am Axel Foley. And I see a whole army of my Munstermen,
      here in defiance of tyranny and expansive rugby! You have come to fight as 8 men. And
      8 man you are! What will you do without Backs? Will you (stand up and) fight?”

      ** “Forwards Against backs?” No! They they will
      run round us – and live!” **

      “Yes!” “Boshing against Forwards they will die. Run and they may
      live… at least awhile. And lying in your bed (in your worn Paul O’Connell pyjamas) many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for
      one chance, just one chance, to come back here as young men and tell
      our enemies that they may take on our 9s but they will never take on
      our Forwards!”

  9. hulkinator

     /  February 20, 2014

    Foley’s comments in the media would indicate to me that he has his own ideas on how the game should be played and will go his own way. You get the feeling that its a jobs for the boys type of appointment. Munster could easily have offered Penney a 2 year deal but didn’t. Very disappointing and most Munster fans would prefer Penney to stay.

    The negativity in the media towards Penney didn’t help things either. The old Munster brigade knew better than Penney it seems. Foley’s friend Keith Wood was always trying to talk Penney down.

  10. Patrick O'Riordan

     /  February 20, 2014

    Yeah, I can’t help but think Wood’s views were influenced by his longstanding personal relationship with Foley. The best Penney ever seemed to get from Wood was damning with faint praise.

  11. Mary Hinge

     /  February 20, 2014

    Am I the only one surprised that there wasn’t an interview process for this job and that two other loyal and passionate sons of Munster – Bradley and EOS – didn’t get a shot at the gig? I’m waiting for Vincent Hogan and David Kelly to get stuck into that!

    • Bradley thought he’d get the job when Deccie quit, and he hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory since (Embra 2012 HEC run aside). As for Eddie, that’s a longer-running sore innit? He hasn’t worked in Ireland for nearly 6 years now

      • Leinsterlion

         /  February 20, 2014

        The Dagger is working in Ireland, at the lofty heights of, bottom of the AIL1 with Garryowen. If they stay up, it will be a minor “+” on his CV at least.

        • Bueller

           /  February 20, 2014

          In fairness he came in over Christmas after they had lost 10 in a row and he has started the new year with two wins from two games….

          • connachtexile

             /  February 20, 2014

            I think the AIL could serve EOS well. He’s in coaching again so people can see how he is doing there in a club system which is very different from an international set-up. They can also see if the ELV’s have hamstrung is game like they did Yoda. There’s good quality manageing their with Ruddock and Pretorious among the best so it’s a stiff chalenge and a bunch of young lads are getting the benefit of his rugby brain and he can use it as a stepping stone to bigger things if he is inclined to do so.

  12. Leinsterlion

     /  February 20, 2014

    Rob “Bull” Penny: Why’re you interfering, Father? This is none of the brave and faithfuls business.

    Munster branch hive mind: It’s the Axel’s field. He has the right to it.

    Rob “Bull” Penny: No. It’s my field. It’s my child. I nursed it. I nourished it. I saw to its every want. I dug the rocks out of it with my bare hands and I made a living thing of it! My only want is that green grass, that lovely green grass, and you want to take it away from me, and in the sight of God I can’t let you do that!

    Munster branch hive mind: Can’t you find another field?

    Rob “Bull” Penny: Another field? Another field? Jesus, you’re as foreign here as any Yank. Another field? Are you blind? Those hands, do you see those hands? Those rocks! It was a dead thing! Don’t you understand?

    Munster branch hive mind: This is Axel’s field. That’s the law. The Munster law.

    Rob “Bull” Penny: There’s another law, stronger than the Munster law.

    Munster branch hive mind: What’s that?

    Rob “Bull” Penny: The law of the land. When I was a boy, younger than JJ Hanrahan there, my brothers and sisters had to leave New Zealand, because it couldn’t support them. We wasn’t rich enough to be priests or doctors, so it was the emigrant ship for all of them. I were the eldest, the heir. I were the only one left at home. Neighbours were scarce. So my father and I, we had our breakfast, dinner, and tea, working in that field without a break in our work. And my mother brought us the meals. One day, one day my father sensed a drop of rain in the air and my mother helped us bring in the hay before it was too late. She was working one corner of the field, and I was working in the other. About the third day, I saw her fall back, keel over so to speak. I called my father, I run to her. My father kneeled beside her. He knew she… he knew she was dying. He said an act of contrition into her ear and he asked God to forgive her her sins. And he looked at me, and he said, “Fetch a priest.” Fetch a priest… And I said, “Let’s – let’s bring the hay in first. Let’s bring the hay in first.” My father looked at me with tears of pride in his eyes. He knew I’d take care of the land. And if you think I’m gonna face my mother in Heaven or in Hell without that field, you’ve got something else coming. No collar, uniform, or weapon will protect the man that stands in my way.

    Knock on the door…..Anthony “Axel” Foley enters, smirking, whilst chomping down on a bowl of chips and gravy.

    Anthony “Axel” Foley: I hear there is a rice paddy available in Okinawa that has a good yield.

    Rob “Bull” Penny: Is that a threat?

    Anthony “Axel” Foley: The title we have given you, “Bull” is merely an honorific, the real “Bull” will be on his way shortly.

    With that, “Axel” picks up the huge gem and turf encrusted horn and blows a long and mournful note that echoes around the empty Musgrave park, awakening the sleeping crickets who begin their chirruping thinking a game is on and the usual atmosphere is required. Suddenly the sky darkens, the thatch begins to shake loose of Thomand and the Munster Branch HQ. The door opens and all natural light is extinguished.

    Enter John “The Bull” Hayes. Face hewn of granite, hands like shovels, 60 cubits high, body scarred from years of war and toil.
    A deathly silence falls, even the crickets in Musgrave park stop, the Bull slowly opens his palm showing Rob Penny the one way ticket to Okinawa. Rob gets the picture.

    Rob Penny: Ok, ok, I get the picture tending a rice paddy in Okinawan club rugby seems great, i’ll resign tomorrow, you can have your field and i’ll leave the nickname behind too, no need to do anything rash, I remember what happened to Owen Farrell, the poor guy shits himself if he is shown a picture of a sod of turf and faints if he even so much as gets a whiff of silage. I value my sanity.

    Anthony “Axel” Foley: I’m happy you see things my way, usually New Zealanders arent afforded this much courtesy before we stab them in the back, I just happen to be nicer guy than Eddie O’Sullivan.

    Rob Penny leaves head bowed, promising to resign on the moro, and Axel orders a round of snackboxes for everyone in celebration at being appointed Munster new head coach in a bloodless coup.

    • The central premise of Penney being nicknamed the Bull could have been better established, but other than that, some of your best work.

  13. seiko

     /  February 20, 2014

    Of the present Munster squad, S Zebo, R O’Mahony, D Williams, C Murray, D Kilcoyne, D Ryan, M Sherry, S Archer, D Foley, I Nagle, D O’Callaghan, B Holland, T O’Donnell, P Butler, P O’Mahony (capt) were all in Axel ‘A’ team that reached the final of the B&I Cup so it would be fair to say he has probably had more of an impact on them than Penney who has been here for 2 seasons.

    Its also worth noting that last year, Axel only got a 1 year deal so as to bring all the coaching staff contracts to be starting and finishing at the same time. And it seems that Penney’s late offer was just too good to turn down – double what he is on in Munster for 6 months of the year over 3 years. You just couldn’t compete with that.

    When Axel retired from playing, he went to the SH to broaden his coaching experience and they mentioned in the Indo today that he worked with John Mitchell, among others. He also spent a couple of weeks down in Toulouse getting work experience there.

    • hulkinator

       /  February 20, 2014

      It remains to be seen whether or not Foley had a bigger influence. The current world player of the year speaks highly of Penney and also under Penney TOD and a few others have really come on.

      Also the scrum has been a weapon since Penney took over.

      • Its a good point – Axel has got a portion of the credif for the technical improvement of the forwards. How much of that is due to Penney will only become apparent in 12 months. It is pretty clear Penney’s gameplan isn’t quite getting traction, but its also clear the skill levels of the Munster forwards are a good bit higher than they were 2 years ago

        • seiko

           /  February 20, 2014

          Axel has been the constant though and the named Forwards Coach. I read an interview with one of the Munster backrows heaping praise on Axel (mentioned that he took him for extra/individual coaching) so I think its a bit unfair to guess that its all down to Penney. As for TOD, he is Limerick based like Axel (as are BJ, Killer, Cronin, Sherry, Varley, Duncan Casey) and so would see a lot more of Axel than they would of Penney.

          Munster were not afraid to hire Penney 2 years ago over Axel, why would they be afraid not to overlook him again if they thought he wasn’t up to it. They have a track record in making the hard calls. According to ROG, one of Penney’s great attributes is that he inspires confidence and the young players really responded very well to it (must be a bit of a shock having to deal with Schmidt’s ultra criticism for some of them).

          A lot of the improvement in the team can be down to a lot of things, but a lot would have to do with getting older, gametime and getting experience.

          I wouldn’t mind at all if Munster played this kind of 10 man rugby from 2000! (John Hayes try against Toulouse)

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