ROB PENNEY WILL depart Munster Rugby in a little over a month but, for the second season in succession, is dreaming of leaving a Heineken Cup-winning legacy behind.
The New Zealander, who will head to club rugby in Japan in the summer, took his team to the final four last season before Clermont edged them out in Montpelier. Another daunting trip to France awaits, as do Toulon at the Stade Velodrome, on Sunday. For Penney, who watched his side brush off Connacht’s Pro12 challenge on Saturday, he is right where he wants to be.
“These are the exciting parts of your life,” Pennery remarked. “They don’t get any better than this; preparing to play a great side like that.” He, and his players, have been chipping away at a game-plan to defeat the French side ever since they watched them dismantle Leinster in their quarter final. He declared:
We’re going to have to play the best game we have ever played and some individuals will have to go beyond where they have been before. But that is the challenge for us as a management group — to get the players in a frame of mind where they are prepared to do that.”
Penney acknowledged the past history, and meetings, of the two sides in the Heineken Cup and noted his side would be going down every motivational avenue possible in order to pull out ‘a magic performance’ in Marseilles. The belief, he remarked, has grown since he took Munster to within one score of beating Clermont in last year’s semi final.
“We’re miles ahead in terms of their mental appreciation of how to prepare and belief. There is a genuine understanding and realisation, after Clermont, that this group can compete at this level. I don’t think this group thought that before that game… They went away from that game with a lot more belief than they had last year. That has flowed into this year and this year’s competition. Let’s hope that continues this week.”
Penney said the building blocks for Munster’s victory came moments after the final whistle of their 22-5 humbling at home to Glasgow Warriors. “We put ourselves in a position where we could have potentially missed out on a top four spot,” he said. “They’ve worked too hard and have played some really attractive, smart rugby at times, to let it slip at the last hurdles.”
Having got back on a winning track, the Kiwi feels a top four spot is all but secured although a home semi final may be dependant on Glasgow slipping up. The league, for now, will be put to one side as Toulon come into focus.
Tighthead BJ Botha was on the bench but afforded the evening off as John Ryan deputised well and often troubled Connacht’s Ronan Loughney. Penney added, “[Sean] Dougall again is really putting pressure on Tommy O’Donnell for an opportunity [at openside] and I thought James Downey was outstanding. It was a really big game from him, which we needed.
“Andrew Conway was another that stands out and Duncan Williams probably had his best game in the jersey. He had us on the front foot, played smart rugby and set up a beautiful try. For once, he was lucky to get a bounce of a ball. Normally those balls don’t bounce for Duncan but hopefully that [has changed].”
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Conor Murray played the final seven minutes [and a couple in injury time] as out-half, having replaced Ian Keatley late on. Penney was pleased with the cameo from ‘a gifted player’ and says ‘he has the potential to go [to 10] if we’re desperate’.
– Additional reporting by Aaron Turner @ConnachtClan