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 committing 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.
With Anthony Foley on the training ground. Pic: INPHO/James Crombie
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.