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.