Sunday 24 September 2017

Connacht just seem to get it a little easier – Penney

Munster coach's criticism of Muliaina transfer at odds with views of Irish supremo Schmidt

Anthony Foley and Rob Penney in conversation during Munster’s training session
Anthony Foley and Rob Penney in conversation during Munster’s training session
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

THE question was thrown in as almost an afterthought towards the end of what could be Rob Penney's penultimate pre-match press briefing as Munster coach.

It had all been fairly run of the mill up until that point, a spot of injury news and some thoughts on Saturday's opponents Ulster and, desperate for a line, the assembled hacks tried to push for the New Zealander to admit that winning something before he heads off to Japan would mean the world to him, but he wasn't biting on the human angle.

Before proceedings drew to a close, a question was lobbed into the mix, looking for Penney's assessment of Mils Muliaina's joining Connacht, also wondering how the Reds coach would sell Munster to his contacts back home in the way Pat Lam did to the All Black legend.

Penney addressed the second part first, speaking of the pride and structures Munster have to offer, before he turned his attention to the Connacht part of the question.

"What's it doing for Irish rugby?" he wondered aloud, re-opening a can of worms that has rumbled on for much of this season.

In the minds of the casual fan, Connacht are often seen as a second team; the plucky underdog who punch above their weight from time to time to deliver a result like their victory in Toulouse.

The goodwill, however, often does not extend to the three other provinces. A lingering annoyance bubbles under the surface and yesterday it raised its head publicly.

Perhaps the underdog tag simply doesn't wash when you've just been outbid for a talent like Bundee Aki as Munster and Leinster are believed to have been.

Connacht lured the talented centre out west at a time when both of their rival provinces are looking for players in his position and are believed to have offered a substantially better package.

FRUSTRATION

Free of IRFU restrictions, Connacht then went and landed a bona fide All Black legend in Muliaina, who joins former Chiefs captain Craig Clarke and Nathan White as experienced New Zealanders in the squad.

"The frustration is around their ability to fund those new recruits," Penney said. "What's it doing for Irish rugby?

"They need a bit of a hand-up, but let's keep it real as well. There is a lot of work going on in the other three unions – Connacht just seem to get it a little easier.

"If they're able to recruit players at the level that they've signed, then I'd just wonder if it's the right thing for Irish rugby."

His views contrasted sharply with those held by Ireland coach Joe Schmidt who, earlier in the day, had broadly welcomed Muliaina's arrival and heralded the impact the Kiwi will have on young Irish players like Robbie Henshaw and Kieran Marmion.

"I think it's great for Connacht, I think it has already caused a little bit of excitement and that's what you want," said Schmidt, who coached Muliaina at the Auckland Blues, on a visit to NUI Galway yesterday.

"You want people to get excited about the game in all four corners of the country. I know the quality of the person and the player that he is, so I think that he will definitely add value."

It wouldn't be the first time that Schmidt and Penney haven't seen eye-to-eye since the latter man arrived at Munster before last season, but this issue extends to a real source of discontent that new IRFU performance director David Nucifora will have to address as soon as he takes over in June, even though Penney will have moved on to Japan.

On one hand, you have Connacht coach Lam openly criticising young players for having a lack of ambition when it comes to staying in British and Irish Cup squads rather than moving west.

On the other, you have the traditionally strong provinces maintaining their need for 50-strong squads to sustain their efforts on three fronts, while the players themselves have to want to move.

Leinster yesterday confirmed a raft of contract extensions, with 10 of the 21 who signed up to new deals being fringe players who still dream of making the breakthrough.

Others, like Jack O'Connell and Darren Hudson, are headed for England and Bristol where they will join a large number of Irish players plying their trade in the Premiership and Championship.

Penney yesterday argued that Connacht should be offering those players a route back into Irish rugby, while handing young players a chance rather than signing marquee New Zealanders. "There are a lot of good Irish lads who are just not getting access, we've got some in our environment and I'm sure Ulster and Leinster have as well," Penney said.

"There are guys in the English Premiership who would love to be playing in Ireland and they're eligible. I'd just wonder if it is in the best interests of the game, but obviously other people deem that to be the case."

Those other people would be the IRFU who, given that their employee Kevin Potts is acting chief executive at Connacht, would presumably have given the green light to the Muliaina deal which Lam says falls inside his current budget.

Where it all comes back to is the place of Connacht in the Irish rugby system. Are they a 'development' province or an entity with genuine ambitions of competing?

The Muliaina signing indicates the latter and there does not appear to be a traffic jam of academy players banging down the door just yet.

In landing the All Black, beating the other provinces to Aki and also holding on to the perennially in-demand Henshaw, the Westerners are ruffling feathers.

But they remain in the bottom half of the Pro12 as their three fellow provinces look ahead to the semi-finals; face life in the second tier of Europe next season and only have one regular member of the Irish squad – Henshaw – in their ranks.

Although it rankles among their rivals, the Muliaina signing has caused a stir throughout the rugby world and the province are reporting a significant increase in interest in season tickets for next term already.

He may not have much left in the tank, but the All Blacks star quality is already making waves and if they have tongues wagging and people worried then, perhaps, Connacht are doing something right.

Irish Independent

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