What Munster must do to keep dreams alive
Published 15/01/2013 | 05:00
ROB PENNEY'S task was never going to be an easy one. He has succeeded a coach – Tony McGahan had been backs coach under Declan Kidney – credited with playing a pivotal role in Munster's two Heineken Cup successes and has done so at a time when Munster just don't have available the same level of personnel that built their legend.
It can't have been helpful either when his boss, Munster chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald, highlighted that the 2013 Heineken Cup final was being held in the Aviva Stadium thereby helping raise expectations and apply added pressure.
The Kiwi-born coach's situation is further complicated by the fact that he was given little, if any, opportunity to impose any personal design on Munster's team upon his appointment. He inherited a squad McGahan assembled and one simply not equipped with the skill set to play Penney's preferred game.
It is altogether likely there will be a changing of the guard in Munster during Penney's tenure, but it will be some time before that happens. Munster simply cannot afford to lose their more experienced players, and Penney surely knows this.
The more immediate issue for Penney is to find a way to harness the positive effects from the win over Edinburgh and channel them into the preparations, and indeed the performance, this weekend.
If, as is probable, Montpellier beat Toulon by less than eight points, they would claim the first of the runners-up spots – Toulon need only a losing bonus point to secure a home quarter-final – leaving Munster and Leinster scrambling for the last spot.
In that event, Munster will only have to match what Leinster achieve against Exeter in order to secure the final qualifying spot.
Opinions on how best to achieve the desired result litter the ground like used confetti, but what is inescapable is that some changes will have to be made to the team, while those who retain their places will have to put in improved performances.
And the coaching staff will also have to be more discerning with their tinkering. Change for the sake of change is not a positive. It is not a coincidence that after the spine of the team – 8, 9, 10 and 12 – was changed, Munster conceded 14 points on Sunday.
That three of the four were substituted by players not of their equal was exacerbated by the fact that at least one of Edinburgh's tries came from them attacking the channel those replaced had been effectively policing for over an hour.
The timing of their replacements made even less sense when it is remembered that Conor Murray had scored Munster's second try just minutes earlier and James Coughlan had benefited from a rest having been sacrificed for the duration of Dave Kilcoyne's time in the sin-bin.
Of course, the coaches cannot be held accountable for the actions of their players and they must have been screaming into their arms in frustration when they saw players dying with the ball, mistiming line-out throws and lifts and allowing themselves to be dragged down to Edinburgh's level.
The players must produce on Sunday. In this regard, Munster are blessed that they have players who deliver when the need is at its greatest. Sunday's game is the kind of contest players like Doug Howlett and Ronan O'Gara thrive on, and Penney will be praying that his out-half is available.
O'Gara has been cited over an incident in the win against Edinburgh and has a disciplinary hearing in Dublin on Thursday.
Traditionally, when the pressure is on Munster to perform and carve out a result, O'Gara is the one expertly wielding the blade.
If the Munster coach wants his backline to sizzle, he knows this is best achieved with O'Gara conducting the orchestra and using his vision to put strike runners of Simon Zebo's capabilities into space to challenge the Racing defensive wall.
three changes munster must make for sunday
It is surely time to deploy Zebo at full-back, where he starred for Ireland during the November internationals. Zebo (pictured right) was Munster's most attack-minded player against Edinburgh, but his influence was negated by a lack of possession.
As an attacking full-back, he has the rare ability to see space in front of him and punch through. He also has the vision to subtly glide into gaps that do not exist when he receives the ball. That's what the Munster backline needs more than anything else.
The best, and most effective, weapon in any team's armoury in any sport is the element of surprise, and Zebo has that facility to ghost through defences.
It is also hugely relevant that he has the knack of seeing players in better positions than himself and off-loading in a timely and beneficial manner. Munster's back three would be greatly enhanced by his switching to a more pivotal position.
This would also free up the wing for Keith Earls. It was always a gamble to ask Earls to take on the responsibility of outside-centre so soon after returning from injury and his lack of game-time has been evident in his last two performances. His passing isn't up to the required standard for a game-changing centre either. What he does have, though, is gas and an ability to get his frame over the line no matter the barrier in his way.
If Penney needs convincing, all he has to do is look up Earls' try for Ireland against Wales in the second half of the World Cup quarter-final in Wellington, when he somehow kept himself and the ball in play and touched down despite Mike Phillips' attentions.
That move would then allow Casey Laulala to come into the centre. The former Cardiff player has been very disappointing since joining Munster, but last week Penney insisted that his former Canterbury protege was beginning to show signs of discovering his best form.
Munster will then have players running attacking lines off O'Gara's shoulder, and this should facilitate a far more effective attacking unit.
The bench also needs an overhaul. Peter Stringer's continued exile makes less and less sense. He hasn't featured in a Heineken Cup squad since the away game against Racing when he was only one of two unused replacements.
Stringer's skills are unique and as a game-changing replacement, there is no scrum-half his equal. If, as expected, Munster are chasing tries and the pace of the game has to be increased then surely Stringer's quick hands are the stronger option?
The mess that was made of their first attacking line-out when deep in the Edinburgh '22' blew the chance to build on what had been an encouraging maul and heat-seeking kick to the corner from O'Gara.
Munster were three points up and a try at that early juncture would surely have inspired them. Instead, Edinburgh moved play into Munster's '22', a chance was lost to make an early statement and it was another 23 minutes before O'Gara had a second kick at goal. That specific line-out was undone by the combination of a poor throw and slow reaction from the jumper.
Damien Varley wasn't helped on Sunday by a succession of poor lifts and sloppily timed calls, but the inaccuracy of the darts out of touch has been a recurring theme this season.
In the absence of a functioning line-out, Munster are denied the ability to use the maul effectively and with that goes an attacking platform that is impossible to defend against when properly deployed.
They were far too conservative on Sunday. The key to the future can sometimes lie in the past. If Munster need inspiration for Sunday's showdown with Racing Metro, they need only to look to their history.
When Gloucester pitched up to Thomond Park on January 18, 2003 for the now legendary 'Miracle Match', they were expected to lose but still qualify for the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup ahead of their hosts. Munster were given no chance of winning by the 27-point margin needed to overtake the Premiership side.
Not many sporting days rate once-in-a-lifetime status but Munster's performance that Saturday belongs among the greatest rugby tales in history. Of all their past epic deeds, this was unquestionably their most amazing accomplishment and ranks up there with their two Heineken Cup wins.
Munster went for it. They believed in themselves and it was obvious in the way they played the game. The blissful state beyond self-doubt that was so evident in the team that day is lacking in the current generation.
The players were clearly shackled by tactics on Sunday when Ronan O'Gara was repeatedly directed to kick for points instead of showing more ambition.
The players must be allowed the freedom to "go for it" if they believe a more ambitious approach will yield them dividend, irrespective of Leinster's return against Exeter the previous day.
The onus this week is now on Rob Penney and his coaching staff to inject some much-needed confidence into the side.
This can be achieved simply by allowing them their head.