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.

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.

Penney Passes First Test

When Tony McGahan left Munster we gave him an average report card, deeming his leagacy a mixed one.  His currency, however, is diminshing by the week, because Rob Penney has hit the ground running so well.  Indeed, he’s already done the one thing McGahan couldn’t do in all his four years there: get Munster to buy in to his philosophy.

Consensus was that McGahan wanted Munster to play a more expansive game than they had done under Kidney, but you wouldn’t necessarily have known that from watching them on the pitch.  Indeed, if Martians landed on Thomond Park and asked us what McGahan’s Munster’s gameplan was, we would have found it difficult to explain to them.  Under Penney, it’s clear what’s going on.  Backs and forwards no longer look like complete strangers who just bumped into each other in the corridors before the game.  There’s an emphasis on keeping the ball alive, and in James Downey and Casey Laulala, the personnel are there to do it.

In a perverse sense, Penney has been fortunate that he could bed in his ideas in the absence of Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara.  Without wanting to denigrate two of the great players of this (or any) era, there was always a suspicion that they had too great an influence under McGahan’s reign.  When the pressure came on, Munster reverted to their way of playing the game; the way that brought them success under Kidney.  That meant ROG kicking territory and Paul O’Connell taking up the ball time and time again, but for little gain and sub-lightning-fast recycling.

Due to injury and player welfare requirements, both have been largely absent from Munster’s opening month, and the rest of the team have flourished in their absence, which is not to say they won’t be huge assets when they are back in the fold.  ROG is back already and O’Connell soon will be – but they’ll be being dropped into a successful, winning team, playing better than at any time in the last three years, as opposed to having to grab the team by the scruff of its neck, as would have been the case in the recent past.  The Munster camp looks a happy one.  They seem to be enjoying their rugby.  Just look at the re-energised O’Callaghan for proof.  Invisible and derided on this blog last year, he looks like Stakhanov reborn.

All that said, the real business starts now.  Next week, Munster go away to Ospreys (who have had a strange start to the season), and that’s followed up by the Leinster grudge match and the first Heineken Cup match away to Racing; a game which increasingly looks like the key to navigating the group.  Here’s three calls to ponder for Rob Penney:

1. The Back Row

One thing that hasn’t changed from last year is a lack of ball-carrying heft in the Munster pack, particularly in the absence of the injured James Coughlan, on whom they are already overly reliant for hard yards.  Dave O’Callaghan is putting his hand up for selection on the flank and CJ Stander has yet to arrive.  O’Mahony hasn’t played yet but has the sort of ball skills that look tailor made to Penney’s game.  Niall Ronan, Sean Dougall, Paddy Butler and Tommy O’Donnell are all in the picture too: tidy footballers all, but not in the Generation Ligind class.  What chance a backrow of O’Callaghan-Ronan-O’Mahony?  It would have plenty of football in it, but lacks for physicality and experience.  Penney must find the correct balance, which could bring Butler into the reckoning.

2. The Backline

WoC commented in its last seasonal review of Munster that they had good players to fill every shirt from 11-15, so there was no need for them to look as awful as they did.  This is being borne out.  Indeed they’ve so many good players that one is going to miss out.  Hurley is a particular favourite here at WoC; pace he may lack, but he’s big, strong and first and foremost, a proper footballer.  Howlett is captain, he plays 14.  Downey is inked in at 12.  It leaves Zebo, Earls and Laulala fighting for two jerserys, with Earls certain to start, but perhaps in the role he apparently hates.  All three look bang in form.  We’ve a feeling Zebo might just be the one to miss out, but this is a marginal call whichever way it goes and whoever misses out will get his chance at some stage.

3. Dun-dun-Dunnnnnnnnnn. Number 10.

O’Garawatch has never been such fun.  Losing his Ireland place crearly rankles; imagine if he lost his Munster starting jumper.  Picture the Sky cameras panning to his face in the Thomond Park stands.  Think of the media men sharpening their pencils.  Ian Keatley is knocking harder than ever, and looks better suited to the game Penney wants to play.  But you underestimate ROG at your peril, and we suspect both Leinster and Racing would still prefer to face Munster with Keatley at 10 than the wily old Corkman.  Keatley’s Heineken Cup starting debut is probably more likely to come at Thomond Park than in a hard away game.