The Ha’Penney Place

So here we are in the middle of the Six Nations, the day before the pivotal game in Ireland’s campaign, about to blog about provincial concerns.  Hey, come back, readers!

The announcement that Rob Penney was to leave Munster came as a bit of a shock to the system.  It was one of those things we just expected to be ironed out, with a positive announcement emerging in the next month or so.  When there was talk of Penney’s contract being up in the air before Christmas, it looked like navigating qualification from the Heineken Cup pool would be critical.  With that box ticked, and the bonus of a home quarter-final secured, the rest looked like a formality.  Alas, no.  Penney is off, apparently to Japan where he has been offered a three-year deal and he has cited greater proximity to his native New Zealand as a reason for moving.

So, did he jump or was he pushed?  Yesterday’s statement, where he said ‘I just have to take this opportunity [in Japan]’ would indicate that Penney is driving the decision to leave.  But consider that he has only been offered a one year deal, and maybe he felt he wasn’t getting a great offer.  The one-year contract appears to have become the new PFO in rugby, a bet-hedging exercise from the paymasters that neither takes the drastic action of sacking the coach, nor particularly backs them to the hilt.  McGahan left Munster under similar circumstances.  With the future of European rugby and now the Pro12 shrouded in more doubt than ever, one can sympathise with those in charge of such matters, but all the recently contracted players signed on for two years and more, so Penney would surely have expected at least the same terms.

So where does it all leave Munster?  In a slightly odd position.  It looks like Penney is leaving a job half-done, and what direction the new coach takes them in will be interesting.  Penney had a pretty fixed idea on how to play the game, his Cantabrian rugby philosophy being somewhat dyed in the wool.  He spoke about the group being ‘un the put’ with regard to learning a new skills-based, high-mobility approach to attack, involving pods of tight forwards hanging out wide.  At times Munster struggled with it, but it looks as if he is departing just as the work was starting to bear fruit.

Munster find themselves top of the Pro 12, with 10 wins and just two losses, and after a careless opening weekend in the Heineken Cup, have navigated their group with ease.  While they may not have had to play especially well to win any of those matches, it’s worth casting one’s mind back to just what a rabble the team was in McGahan’s final season.  His final game was an embarrassing pasting at the hands of Ospreys in the Pro12 semi-final, by which stage he had reduced one of his best players, Conor Murray, into a confused mess who couldn’t seem to remember whether he was a scrum-half or a flanker.  Under Penney, a number of officer-class players have flourished, Murray included.  Peter O’Mahony’s rise has been swift, but it may be more instructive to look at Tommy O’Donnell, who was blown off the park in the decisive game of McGahan’s final season (the home defeat to Ulster in the Heineken Cup but has gone on to work his way to the fringes of the test team.

It looks like a decent body of work, but it’s hard to untangle how much of it to put down to the coach and how much to attribute to the group of players.  For all the good results, Penney’s Munster still struggle to execute the game plan he wants to play.  Occasionally it flickers into life; Earls’ superb team-try against Gloucester showcased Penneyball at its best, but for every moment of clarity, there are entire games where the passing across the backline is too substandard to get anything going.  At times they look doomed to remain ‘un the put’ until they can find a pair of centres who can pass the ball more than five metres.  For all the talk of Cantabrian total-rugby, Munster’s greatest asset is still their unyielding unwillingness to accept defeat, and ability to grind out wins.  Hey, what’s new?  Has this really come from the coach, or is to be attributed to the espirit de corps inherent in players like Paul O’Connell, Donnacha Ryan and Peter O’Mahony?  Forget ball skills, feel the pishun!

The following quotation from Paul O’Connell is hardly a ringing endorsement:

“I think Rob leaving doesn’t make a massive difference. I think a lot of the bits around my decision to stay are still firmly there. You’d love to think and I hope Anthony would remain, whether it is as head coach or forwards coach. I suppose he is one of the main guys I would have worked with the most in Munster.”

Against all that, though, if the team is consistently winning matches, the coach has to get some credit.  Too often in the meeja, poor performances were put down to his tactics not being right for Munster, while good ones were down to the senior players taking the lead. Calls for ‘up-the-jumper’ rugby in the ‘Munster tradition’ appear misplaced, with the pack now totally diferent in make-up and skillset from that which Kidney and McGahan presided over.  The Quins and Clermont games looked like pure Penneyball, with Caey Laulala’s lines of running and offloading to the fore, but it was Rog and Paulie who got the credit. It feels like something isn’t quite right, and dark murmurs of Penney’s unhappiness with commentary from outside the camp refuse to go away. Still, he’d hardly care if he had a 2-year extension, and the assumed ironclad backing from the top brass.

So where next?  Get someone in who can continue on the Penney-ball path (who, exactly?) or rip up the last two years and start again?  No doubt the ROG-Axel ticket will be trumpeted in certain quarters, but is either coach really ready?  ROG has had precisely one season coaching and would almost certainly deem it to be too soon for him.  Axel, on l’autre hand, appears to have the backing of the players, and looks a solid bet for the main gig.  He missed out last time, so presumably now they give it to him or he goes.  What his relationship with Penney is like, or his views on Penneyball we don’t know, but in all likelihood we are about to find out.

Schmidt Ticks Every Box – Bar One

With each passing day it seems more and more inevitable that Joe Schmidt will be the next Ireland head coach.  He appears willing to stay the extra year up until the end of the 2015 World Cup, and Leinster have given him their blessing, and assured him they won’t stand in his way. BOD helpfully leaked that he might stay on if Schmidt gets the nod, and there is no other obvious contender already under the IRFU umbrella.

As an appointment, it makes sense on any number of levels.  Schmist’s credentials as head coach are impeccable.  Having delivered back-to-back Heineken Cups for Leinster, his ability to win silverware needs no embellishment on these pages.  Not only did he win with Leinster, however, he had the team playing with a swashbuckling, attack-minded and risk-taking style that was at odds with the bish-bash-bosh fodder offered up by most teams around them.  When Schmidt arrived, he stated his goal of making Leinster the best passing team in Europe.  It seemed an odd thing to say about a backline made up entirely of thoroughbread internationals, but he has been true to his word.  Players speak of learning something new every day at training, and Shane Horgan has described Schmidt’s conviction in how the game should be played.

He would surely bring the very thing that Kidney’s tenure ran out of in its later period – a clearly defined playing identity and attacking gameplan.  Kidney’s Ireland for the most part proved themselves an organised defensive unit, and were particularly effective in executing choke tackle turnovers, but it never appeared to the outsider that attack with ball in hand received the same attention.

Joe Schmidt, a Kiwi back himself in his playing days, lives and breathes attacking rugby, and his expertise is in sourcing and exploiting space on the rugby pitch.  His coaching style is based on improving accuracy with an emphasis on repetitions of moves until they become ingrained in the muscle memory.  When Luke Fitzgerald ran the length of the pitch to score against Bath, the space had been created for him because the passes to get the ball across the openside of the pitch were all at chest height in front of the catcher – nothing more complicated than that.

Whether he can transfer that accuracy to test level remains to be seen. Will his working methods transfer across to the international game where he sees the players less often, and muscle memory is less easy to build up?  One thing’s for sure – the IRFU will continue to assist him as they did Kidney with mid-season training camps, where he can take his players out of their provincial environments for a week.

If there is a wrinkle, it’s that Schmidt – like Kidney – has arrived with a certain amount of provincial baggage.  It’s reasonable to argue that this shouldn’t matter, and that the best man for the job is the best man for the job, but in an era where support and enthusiasm for Team Ireland is at a low ebb, the fact that Schmidt will be seen by many as Leinster-affiliated will do little to unify a fragmented support base, and is something the IRFU should be aware of.  But as seen in the early days of Kidney’s tenure, this can be overcome – only temporarily, however – by posting winning results. It’s also worth noting that at Leinster he had a squad that bought into his vision for the game, which enabled him to hit the ground running. Munster have had a difficult season adjusting to a style that doesn’t seem to fit, but then again the international contingent have been their standout players this year – the best players have the ability to adapt and thrive.

Hints as to what Schmidt’s coaching team will look like have been thin on the ground, but Kiss and Smal should be thanked for their time and moved on.  Fresh voices are the order of the day, and with Schmidt already familiar to the Leinster players in his squad, he should be looking to bring in at least one new voice.  With Schmidt an expert on back play, it’s hard to see how Les Kiss would retain anything like the significant role he had as Kidney’s right hand man.  The only leftover from the previous regime should be Axel Foley.  It makes sense to retain a young and well regarded Irish coach on the ticket, and would help to smooth over the Leinster-Munster divide somewhat.

How Ulster will feel about that is an interesting question, but the reality is that its the Leinster-Munster relationship that is the woodworm inside the edifice of Irish rugby – the irrationality and bitterness of the relationship was captured in Cite-gate last week (note: comments about Cite-gate will be deleted – this article is about Jow Schmidt). All rugby fans on the island will be hoping Schmidt’s Ireland can forge an identity of their own, a Team Ireland that fans can stand behind, playing rugby that they can be proud of, and (hopefully) bringing home silverware with the same frequency that the provinces do.

Les Kiss Me Quick

Before the start of the Six Nations, we did a litle bit of exploring into Ireland’s coaching structure v2.0. We weren’t too impressed with the notion that divvying up attack duties between the defence, video and kicking coaches was a good idea. We described it as a patched-up coaching team, but also acknowledged how important this aspect of the team was for Ireland, and thought it would be the difference between a good and bad championship.

Additionally, Gert Smal cried off injured with a mystery eye problem (we’re unsure if it’s the same one Dave Pearson has) and Axel Foley was borrowed from Munster to take over the forwards. Of the 2009 Dream Team, only Deccie and Les Kiss remained, and yet Ireland look invigorated by the new approach.

Attack: in the committee we trust

Amazingly, a Holy Trinity of videos, tees and defence is a better attack coach than Gaffney.   It didn’t look too hot on paper, and took 120 minutes of rugby to start to come together, but Ireland’s attack is much improved.  The Randwick Loop and lateral shovelling that characterised 2010 and 2011 have been replaced by a much sleaker animal.

It’s not that complicated. Ireland have a pod of forwards in front of a bank of backs who are coming onto the ball from deep, and at pace.  What makes the whole thing work is nothing so mysterious as accurate passing.  Johnny Sexton’s distribution has been excellent, and those around him have been up to task, and not all of them have two numbers on their back.  It was Stephen Ferris who put Trimble away for his try against Scotland, and Peter O’Mahony went scrum half at one stage in the second half and spun a wristy, accurate pass out in front of Sexton who was at least 15m away.  Some skillset.

Defence: something had to give

Yes, we have conceded more tries, but have much of that is down to the absence of “himself ” (Copyright Gerry Thornley) and how much to the defence coach double jobbing? We’ll never know, but JJV Davies second try would surely not have happened with Drico at 13 (and with two good shoulders).

It’s somewhat inevitible that defence would suffer a little with Kiss that little bit stretched.  Hopefully he will have enough time in his busy schedule to give the otherwise outstanding Rob Kearney a few lessons in cover tackling.

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Forwards: Axel’s stock on the rise
Naturally, it’s hard to know exactly how much to credit Foley with, but it’s pretty plain that Ireland’s set piece and breakdown work have improved noticeably from the opening game against Wales.
We were legitimately concerned about Ireland’s lineout going into the Scotland game, and according to Keith Wood, Donnacha Ryan was very nervous early in the week over the added burden of lineout calling.  That the set piece worked so well is a feather in the cap for Axel (as well as credit to Ryan himself).  Similarly, Ireland’s scrum was dominant for much of the match.  Scotland are no heavyweight scrummagers, but it continued a decent campaign for the front row.  L’icing sur la cake was the tidy set-piece try from Best – precisely the sort of set piece move that brings a smile to the coach’s face when executed so efficiently (though Muddy Wulliams says it’s an old Ulster trick).
Among the many ills of the Welsh game was a lack of aggression at the ruck.  This, too, has been successfully banished in the last three games, with the most visible improvement being in Paris, when Ireland looked almost feral at the breakdown – a little too feral for Dave Pearson’s liking perhaps, but still.
It all augurs well for Foley himself.  Nobody’s actually sure whether or not Smal is returning to the fold, and it’s pretty obvious the IRFU see Foley performing this role at some stage in the future.  His credentials as head coach of Munster next season have been given a timely shot in the arm.

On to Twickers…

All in all then, a pretty good report card. Ireland look to be going places for the first time in three years. The performance graph is positive, with each performance being better than the last for four games in a row now (starting from a low base, admittedly); in stark contrast to the long swathes of dire-ness followed by one stand-out performance.

What we would like to see in Twickers is simple: the same aggressive up-and-in defence that will force England’s boshers into contact (not that they would look for space anyway), but crucially, lets Ireland dictate the first tackle. England’s carriers run pretty straight (Oooooooooooohhh!) and Farrell’s primary option seems to be the inside pass – it should be pretty readable stuff.  If Ireland can repeat the ferocity of our rucking against France, they have a good chance. We have piles more invention in attack than England, but, as always, need to match them up front to earn the right to show it.

There’s a lot at stake in Twickenham.  If Ireland pull off a win, it’s a decent championship and a proper upward curve heading into the series in New Zealand. But lose and it’s Ireland’s worst campaign since the one where Eddie walked – seems harsh to say it, but losing to Wales has left us in that position.

It will still take a monumental effort to get a win on the summer tour, especially at the end of a long, tough season. Last time we went over there, we were forced to play Ed O’Donoghue – let’s hope the big players stay fit. Oh, and if Deccie would pick our best XV for once that would be nice too.

Your coaches … give them to me, now

Having looked backwards in some detail at the Munster and Ulster progress in the last few years, it seems logical to have a look forward, especially in the context of the vacant hot-seats in Belfast and Limerick Cork Limerick. Both provinces will be linked with the usual posse of out-of-work-for-ages supremos e.g. John Kirwan, unavailable pipe-dreams e.g. Conor O’Shea and Desperate Dans e.g. Eddie.

But which job would a man want if both were offered? In fact, how do both jobs stack up? Lets get down and dirty and take a 3 year horizon.

Squad (Re-)Building

Ulster: Ulster’s squad has some tidy Saffers, a couple of Irish superstars and a cadre of young and hungry Irish talent. The squad should be expected to remain pretty settled in the medium term, and should form a good base to work with.   Tommy Bowe and Roger Wilson are coming back next season, which represents an endorsement of the province.  The major risk is the IRFU following through on the blame-the-foreigners act – Muller, Pienaar and Afoa would be virtually impossible to replace.  Delivering greater strength in depth is the first call of duty for a new coach; Ulster don’t have the calibre of reserves that Munster and Leinster can call upon.

Munster: A long to-do list beckons, in spite of the work done by McGahan in the last year. Has Rog three years left? Unlikely, even if he was that way inclined (which we doubt). How does one manage the transition from one of the greatest Irish fly halves in history to … er … Ian Keatley? Tough. First job on the list is pruning a bloated squad – the likes of Duncan Williams, Billy Holland and Scott Deasy are among the likely candidates for the chop / N18 to Galway.

Expectation Levels:

Ulster: High, but realistic. Ulster will demand some silverware in 3 years – a Rabo in year 1 or 2 followed by a HEC is the likely target. After two successive quarter-finals, a move into the Munster/Leinster league of being perennial knock-out stage merchants is the next step, as well as earning a home QF.

Munster: Sky-high, and not always realistic. Such is the level of success attained by the Liginds that the Munster faithful demand a HEC quarter-final and a challenge for the Rabo every year as a bare minimum.  Even if the new coach achieves that, they will not be considered a success without a HEC. We could poke fun by talking about honesty of effort and backs to the wall, but that guff belongs to Farrelly – it’s achievements that count in Thomond Park.

Set-up and Coaching:

Ulster: Still training at Newforge, and awaiting the sort of dedicated training centre and professional backup that Munster and Leinster enjoy at UL and UCD. The irony of Ireland’s leading sports science research mostly coming from Ulster (largely due to the GAA) is not lost on Humph etc. Ulster’s support staff and specialist coaches need beefing up, although a new coach may bring some of those.

Munster: Top facilities at UL, but half the squad is based in Cork – the bi-location is not ideal. The real problem for a prospective coach is, ironically given its where Munster have improved so markedly this season, the forwards coach (assuming here Axel is not the new head coach). Any new coach will have to accept Axel as forwards coach whether they want him or not – that said, he appears fit for purpose.

External Influence:

Ulster: Humph is a hands-on kind of guy, but one suspects that once the new coach and his team are in place, they will be left to it. Brian McLaughlin was left alone until Humph knew he was being replaced. The Ravenhill faithful will support the new coach unconditionally, for the first year at least, given he has the Humph seal of approval. There will be pressure to succeed, but there will not be interference. The rugby media in Ulster are generally rather tame, and without a record of success in a while, everything is still taken as a bonus.

Munster: Axel is regarded as the man in waiting by the suits and the fans (why do you think Ludd was only offered a 1 year deal?) – if things go badly, sections of the crowd will be looking for the coach’s head, and for Axel to step in. Is a top-name coach going to be interested in coming in for a couple of years, when he knows he’ll be moved on after that?  Now try transitioning Radge out of the team – the fans will only be on one side. The media can be fawning, but it’s conditional – if the Liginds like you, you’re in, otherwise, you’re out.

Conclusion:

It’s pretty obvious which job is more appealing to a big name coach, and it’s not the Munster one. In fact, it’s arguable that there are no positives for a non-Munster coach going in (other than the prestige of managing a great franchise), and that anyone with sense wouldn’t touch the job with a bargepole. That being as it is, the Munster hierarchy may be best off appointing Axel a year before they intended to and give him the best backs coach and coaching team they can get. Is it true Eddie is free (don’t snigger, he is an excellent technical backs coach)?

Up in Ulster, the possiblities are myriad – once you meet Humph’s criteria. One suspects Humph will want a young and hungry coach who will bring a new approach and ambition to the squad, like Joe Schmidt at Leinster. A big name like Wayne Smith may bring too much pressure and the risk of going off-message – better to get someone who Humph can trust and who will understand the task at hand. Someone like, say, Matt Sexton? As a former hooker, Sexton could take the forwards and bring in an experienced backs coach to help out. Someone like Eddie (we told you to stop sniggering).

Ludd McGahan Leaves A Mixed Legacy

Ludd McGahan’s departure from Munster won’t see too many tears shed among the Munster faithful.  He has never fully won over the fans in his time there, and for most it will be a case of ‘bring on the new era’.  His defenders will thank him for a good job, but won’t mind too much that he’s going deehn andah.

The truth of the matter is that McGahan’s task was a thankless, maybe even impossible one.  He took over Munster at a time when they were the dominant team in Europe, but had grown old together.  By his second season in charge, most of the core of his team were over the top of a pretty steep hill.  The only way was down.  Plus, he was taking over from Local Hero and Man of the People Declan Kidney.
To make matters worse, the previous management (of which he was a part, it must be said) had done little to manage succession.  Declan Kidney was hugely successful for Munster, but, as a coach, rarely looks too far beyond the next game.  As this superb dissection showed, during his time there, the academy produced next to no players of any quality.
Starter’s orders
The first few months of McGahan’s tenure went pretty swimmingly, though it’s hard to know how much to attribute to him, and how much was the continued good habits of a self-managing squad.  His first Heineken Cup game flirted with disaster, as Munster came within a whisker of losing at home to Montauban’s seconds, but they quickly got their act together, navigating the double header with Clermont Auvergne and dispatching Sale home and away.  They also nearly beat the All Blacks on a famous night in Thomond Park.  By now the Munster machine was purring.  They put together a stirring run of form in both competitions.  Even in the absence of their frontline players – traditionally a time for Munster to fold like a cheap suit – the likes of Mick O’Driscoll and Niall Ronan kept the show on the road.  The 22-5 beating of Leinster and the 43-9 crushing of the Ospreys in the quarter-final were arguably the very peak of their powers.  The Lions selection reflected their machine-like brilliance, and retaining the H-Cup appeared a formality.
Rise of the Blue Meanies Part I

Then something strange happened.  A thoroughly unfancied Leinster, fed on scraps of their horrendous press and the meeja’s Munster love-in, beat them 25-6 in the semi-final.  It was a game which effected a profound change on Irish rugby, and it took Tony McGahan and Munster a long time to recover. 

Over the next 21 months the rot set in.  The following year saw Munster win 9 out of 18 games in the Magners League, somehow squeezing into the newly minted semi-finals, where they were beaten by – not you again – Leinster in a game they never really threatened to win.  It was their third defeat of the season to their rivals – the first was a humiliating 30-0 thumping at a white-hot RDS, and the second a rare loss on their own Limerick patch.   In the Heineken Cup, Munster huffed and puffed, but made it to a semi-final, but  succumbed to a pretty ordinary Biarritz.  Sheer muscle was all Biarritz had, and Munster had nothing to stop it.
Goodbye Generation Ligind
Worse trouble was brewing: Generation Ligind were coming to the end of the road.  Marcus Horan and Denis Leamy’s powers were vastly reduced, John Hayes could give no more, Alan Quinlan was finished as a starter and Jirry Flannery was about to be ruined by injury.  Paul O’Connell was injured and Donncha O’Callaghan was never all that great in the first place.  Almost nothing had been done to ensure the next generation of would-be liginds was in place.
The chickens came home to roost in a disastrous campaign in 2010-2011.  Munster (and Ireland, crucially, for it tied Munster’s hand)  pinned their hopes on Tony Buckley to take over from John Hayes as the country’s premier only tighthead.  Buckley had come off the back of a successful summer tour, where he was one of few players to emerge with credit following an outstanding display of hard carrying and soft hands in New Plymouth.  But there was one problem: he couldn’t scrummage.  Munster lost carelessly to a poor London Irish side and, critically, to Ospreys, with Adam Jones winning the man of the match award without touching the football.  Faced with needing to win in Toulon, Munster went in to meltdown, turning in a shambolic performance and taking a thorough pounding.
Redemption!  Well, sort of
It looked grim for McGahan, and defeat at home to a young Harlequins side in the Amlin Cup was a nadir, but McGahan finally did what he should have done a long time ago and began to dispose of Generation Ligind.  In came some bright new things: Conor Murray, Peter O’Mahony, Simon Zebo and Donncha Ryan.  The Magners League was secured in style, beating newly crowned European kingpins Leinster. In this season’s Heineken Cup, Munster are set fair with a home quarter final and potential home semi-final.  Their maul and lineout are back to something like they used to be, and the scrum rejuvenated by some prime Saffa beef.  But you can’t help but feel McGahan is something of a punch-bag.  When things were going badly, he took the blame; now they’ve picked up, new forwards coach and all round ligind Axel Foley gets the credit.
The natives still aren’t happy though.  Despite winning six from six in the group stages, there’s a feeling that Munster haven’t played terribly well.  They no longer dominate opponents, and tend to eke out wins.  Increasingly, the twin totems of Radge and POC drag the team kicking and screaming to victory.  But, hey – it was ever thus.  Remember Munster’s peak in 2008 & 2009?  It wasn’t all barnstorming victories.  Those with short memories might have forgotten fortunate wins at home to Clermont and Montauban in 2009, and a decidedly shaky semi-final against an unheralded Saracens side in 2008.
Rise of the Blue Meanies Part II
We think it’s fair to conclude that while McGahan hasn’t brought the house down, he has done a decent job in difficult circumstances.  The ire with which he’s regarded in some parts of Munster perhaps has more to do with what’s happening in the blue corner than his own.  Munster fans probably wouldn’t mind a spell of being a bit rubbish, if it didn’t coincide so totally with Leinster’r rise, both on and off the pitch.  When McGahan took over Munster, Leinster were seen as a bit of a joke.  If you’d told fans of either province how the next three seasons would pan out back in 2008, nobody would have believed you.
Back to the Future
We’ll be taking a detailed look at what the Munster job entails later this week.  For whoever comes in to the role, by far the biggest task will be replacing Radge, for two reasons.  First, they have to find someone capable of being as good as him, and there aren’t too many 10s out there that are his equal.  Secondly, at some point they have to phase him out (succession and all that).  As Deccie has found with Ireland, this is harder than it looks.  He has managed part one, but part two is harder.  Any time you lose with Radge on the bench, you can bet his legion of admirers will castigate you for it.  Radge himself is not likely to hand over the shirt too readily, and isn’t shy of doing his bidding in publicIf Munster can manage that most onerous of tasks (they may need to look overseas), they look to just about have enough talent coming through elsewhere to keep them competitive for the medium term.