MANAGING CHANGE IS one of the great challenges that face any organisation in any field.
Since Rob Penney arrived on these shores in 2012, that has been his task at Munster and perhaps overcoming resistance from all sides can be marked as his finest achievement.
From the outset, the province’s hierarchy will have known they were getting a hard-nosed, often cantankerous coach with a need to play expansive, inventive rugby.
After 18 months at the helm and with the team gaining fluidity and an all-important home Heineken Cup quarter-final secured, Penney has earned respect slowly. Although now, most would have backed him to stay on as coach; for much of his tenure in Ireland he has been battling the resistance to change.
Most often uttered with frustration, ‘gameplan’ was the most often used phrase in any Munster conversation last season as Penney’s side refused to go through the tried and trusted route forward in favour of width, width and more width.
A normally supportive chorus of pundits and former players called for Munster to return to their roots, a more basic plan of attack which Declan Kidney and Tony McGahan had long since attempted to move away from.
Many assumed Penney had learned a lesson by the time the Heineken Cup quarter-finals rolled around last season and Munster began to resemble an older vintage in that hard slog with Harlequins. Yet there is a suspicion that the teething stages were by design.
The natural handling skill-set in the south of Ireland is not what it is in the south island of New Zealand. This was Penney throwing his squad in at the deep end; training with the ball in hand more than ever before with second rows at times pinned to the touchline in games to limit the likelihood of possession being bundled into touch. It wasn’t Penney-ball, just a building block towards it, a dunk-in-the-deep-end approach to swimming lessons.
This season, there has been no need for a repeat of the extreme wide gameplan and the improvement in handling has ensured Munster supporters have been treated to a ‘hybrid’ between the two generations of styles. Barring a loss away to Edinburgh, Penney’s approach has been a successful one.
The New Zealander’s angry reaction to that defeat in Murrayfield provided perhaps the most memorable insight into his frustration at seeing his grand plan fall short of fruition. Even after delivering the home truths, Penney’s judgement was questioned. But the string of 14 victories that followed were evidence that the most important factor in a team’s success – the players – had faith in his plan.
Penney gives some one-on-one coaching to John Ryan in December ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan
Respect gained, the grand plan seemed like it had finally come together for the Kiwi, but now the hastily exiting coach will face off with the immovable Guy Noves when Toulouse visit Thomond Park. Suddenly Fortress Thomond has a weakness.
Munster today confirmed that there was a one-year extension on the table for Penney which the Kiwi declined in favour of a more stable, longer term, job opportunity ‘closer to home’. Japan is indeed a step closer to home for Penney (if a step down in quality) but the high budgets and smattering of Kiwi playing staff have no doubt been an attractive facet of the move.
The problem facing Munster now is what to do with the alterations Penney has made to the on-field culture.
An Irish coach would be a welcome addition to the provincial scene and few will shout down the likely appointment of Anthony Foley, but the prospect of further change must be a concern for supporters.
A side with the ambition and history of Munster won’t rest comfortably while phrases like ‘transition period’ are being floated – particularly so soon after the last one.