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:
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 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.
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.
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.
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.