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.

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Step Backwards

After the HEC double-headers in December, we thought that Ulster were virtually guaranteed a knock-out slot, Leinster were pretty much gone, and that Munster had a pretty decent shot at a best runners-up slot. They had 11 points in the bag and had upcoming games against Scottish patsies Embra and flouncing Parisians RM92 at home – both glaring try bonus opportunities.

And the try bonus point is most relevant – 19 points looks like it might not be enough, but 21 will almost certainly do it. They managed to get 4 tries at home to Embra, and looked threatening in Paris first time out. Sure, they didn’t come close to the whitewash against Sarries, but hey, it was Saturday Night Fever in Thomond – who wants tries when you can have penalties slotted between the posts through cold foggy air and the tears of the assembled press box in near-deathly silence?

Here’s a problem though – in the aforementioned early rounds, master orchestra conductor, curer of the lepers and Lion-designate Ronan O’Gara (© Conor George) was playing close-ish to the gainline and looking like he was buying into the Rob Penney Barbarimunster masterplan. In the Saracens double-header, he played a little bit further back – but needs must and the 5 points gained were what was required.

But since then, Rog has drifted further and further back to the point were he was almost 15m behind the gainline in the recent Cardiff workout. Sure, his tactical kicking might have been as pinpoint as ever, but who cares when it’s exactly what the opposition want – Cardiff won their lineouts, kept the ball intelligently and won the match at their leisure. How can Munster score tries if their opponents have the ball?

This followed an inability to get a try-scoring bonus point against Ulster’s 2.5th team – another occasion when O’Gara was nearly stepping on Felix Jones’ toes.

How can Munster expect to score 4 tries in 2 successive games without the ball, and with an outhalf who looks like he is no longer even going through the motions of playing the gameplan his coach wants him to? It’s not all O’Gara’s fault of course, but he has virtually full control over his position on the pitch, and he isn’t attacking the line.

It’s far from a home run that Keatley is of the required quality to be the future of the 10 shirt at Munster, but that’s not necessarily the relevant question to be asking; the only important issue is whether Munster have a better chance of beating Edinburgh by four tries with Keatley or O’Gara at 10.  This isn’t necessarily clear-cut, but Keatley is a quick, strong fly-half with a decent running game, as well as being a strong defender.  Against that, ROG is more experienced, a better place kicker and better kicker from hand.  But with tries the requirement, it might be time to lean towards Keatley.  Such a move would inevitibly be met with a media scrum, and Penney is presumably aware of this.  But it’s time for tough calls.

P.S. amid the lengthy debate about where Penney’s vision is leading Munster, we’d be grateful if pundits were more restrained in their use of the phrase ‘return to core Munster values’.  Shane Horgan has been one of the only pundits to resist temptation to fall back on easy, meaningless platitudes, and pointed out on Off The Ball that the fruitless multi-phase attack that yielded no points late in the Saracens game was proof that Munster have to get away from their old game plan.  Certainly, Munster’s attack is lacking, but stuffing the ball up their collective jumper is not going to get it done.

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.