PAUL O’CONNELL SAYS Munster have learned a lot from the Rob Penney era and believes that the style of rugby developed under their departing coach will benefit the province in the long term.
O’Connell spoke this week about Penney in glowing terms and compared him to other top coaches with whom he’s worked.
“I certainly learned a lot. There are so many ways of playing the game of rugby. It’s incredible… I think Rob, Gatland and Joe are probably the three people with the most clear-cut way of how they think [the sport] should be played. But in many ways, they are completely different. So I’ve learned an awful lot from this.”
The Irish star admits that while the style that Penney employs hasn’t always worked, the team have improved as they’ve gradually acquired a greater understanding of the system, comparing it to the type of rugby the All Blacks favour.
“I think New Zealand play a very similar framework to the way we play at the moment, albeit they are probably a little bit more effective at it than we are. One thing I noticed when I saw them playing about a year and a half ago was the subtlty in how they did it. We were probably lacking a lot of that early this season, but I think it’s gotten better and better.
“There have obviously been some days where we were very poor and you’d ask yourself was this working. There are other days when we’ve been really good and you can really see the merits of it. I know Edinburgh last weekend wouldn’t have been the toughest opposition we’ve ever played… But very often after Heineken Cup defeats, we’ve gone off and played games and had to really slog to win. Yet the framework we had in place last week allowed us to score tries at will.
“There are times when it’s really, really effective, so I think we’ve all learned a lot from the Rob Penney era and it’s been beneficial to rugby.”
However, for all the changes Penney implemented, there was a sense of deja vu about this year’s Heineken Cup campaign. For a fourth time, Munster fell at the semi-final stage of the competition, and O’Connell says the nature of the defeat hurt as much as the loss itself.
“I was bitterly disappointed, because I know I won’t get many more chances. You don’t mind sometimes when you play great stuff and get beaten. But to go out and just not perform was really disappointing. I know we dug in and got back into the game and all that. Even though we were playing badly, we were trying our hearts out. But you do need to play well when you’re playing a quality team like that away from home.
“You need things to work, similar to what we did when we went over to beat France and win the Six Nations. You need things to come off, you need the ball to come out of the scrum. You need to execute your plays. It’s like our lineout, we went to maul one in the first-half, but we dropped it. It had been so effective for us against Toulouse. So that was the frustrating thing — to have come quite close without playing well.
“I’m sure plenty of the lads will be saying that they’ll have a few more shots at this, which is a thing to say after you’ve played badly perhaps. It’s just that I don’t know how many opportunities I’ll have to play in a Heineken Cup semi-final.”
Yet Munster face the prospect of a consolation in the form of the RaboDirect PRO12 title. They face Ulster this weekend, having already guaranteed themselves a place in the top three and a spot in the semi-finals of the competition. However, a win could see them top the league.
“Certainly, when we won it in 2011, it was a brilliant experience. Leinster had just won the Heineken Cup, which probably gave us a bit of an advantage that week in terms of our preparation — we’d an extra week’s prep. They probably enjoyed themselves, while we stayed in.
“Winning that final in Thomond Park was a tremendous experience and one I’ll remember for a long time. It would be a good consolation if we could win it. It looks like we’ll have an away semi-final against a Glasgow side that beat us very well at home a few weeks ago. We’ve struggled against them in the past. It’s going to be a tough competition to win so if we could do it, it would be great.”
Of course, they next play an Ulster side who have their own Heineken Cup disappointment to reflect on.
“I think they have probably been bitterly disappointed with the way things have gone for them in the last few weeks. They have been very unlucky and I think they probably had the most confidence going into the Heineken Cup that they’ve had in a long time. To become undone in the way they did against Saracens was very disappointing. I’d say same as ourselves, they are looking for consolation.”