Leinster's Galacticos creating their own headaches
Penney barb adds spice as Blues' army of Test stars fight to avoid derby axe
Rob Penney would have enjoyed Leinster's press briefing yesterday and not just because it involved members of the media getting soaked.
The Munster coach's assertion that his side would be facing the "Six Nations champions" at Lansdowne Road on Saturday has set the tone for derby week and, whatever you think of the New Zealander's comments, they have certainly given us something to talk about.
Off to Japan at the end of the season, Penney can enjoy a certain freedom in everything he says and has taken full advantage by rolling a verbal grenade into Leinster's serene camp and watching them squirm a bit.
Similarly, the shackles could be off for Leinster forwards coach Jono Gibbes, who is leaving for Clermont Auvergne in June, but he did everything he could to avoid a retort to his compatriot.
The former All Black dusted off his best verbal side-step as he was asked in several different ways to address Penney's comments but each time he was up to the challenge.
Eventually, he conceded that the Munster coach was "stirring it a little bit", but quickly he was back to talking up Saturday's opponents.
Whether or not these Premier League-style pre-match 'mind-games' will have a bearing come kick-off remains to be seen, but the predominance of Leinster players in Joe Schmidt's Six Nations-winning Ireland squad is both a help and a hindrance for the provincial coaching staff this week.
They may be coming back from Paris with a medal around their necks and a spring in their step, but the front-liners have been out of Leinster's hands for more than two months now and have less than a week to get ready for two weeks that will define their season.
A sold-out derby against a Munster team with a point to prove would seem the ideal testing ground ahead of the Heineken Cup quarter-final in Toulon, but Gibbes admitted they would have liked another week to prepare.
Maybe the reason Penney's comments failed to elicit much of a response from Gibbes was the fact that the Leinster coaching staff are pre-occupied with finding their best team and bench from the squad that delivered so much for Ireland last weekend.
In particular, Matt O'Connor faces leaving an international back-row and back-three player out of his match-day 23 for Saturday's clash, such is the competition for places among Leinster's 'Galacticos'.
With 25 fit internationals in his squad, 22 of whom have played Test rugby this season, it is an embarrassment of riches.
The back-three looks particularly crowded, with Rob Kearney perhaps the only player guaranteed his starting jersey as brother Dave, Fergus McFadden, Luke Fitzgerald and Zane Kirchner battle for the wing spots.
"It's crazy," the elder Kearney said. "The back-row is the same too. There's massive competition there. Someone of genuine international class is going to miss out on the provincial team. That is going to be tough to take for someone.
"Again, it has to come back to the strength of the whole group and its togetherness and putting the team before yourself. That has to be key."
Gibbes is conscious of rewarding those who contributed to Leinster's rise to the top of the Pro12 table during the internationals as he and the coaching staff sit down to discuss selection ahead of Friday's team announcement.
There is a balance to be struck, he said, between bringing back the Six Nations winners and not upsetting the balance too much.
"Some of the guys' workloads coming off the Six Nations have to be managed and these are two big games now," Gibbes said.
"We've got to make sure that we get the mix right and make sure we back the guys who kept us going through the Six Nations. Reward them and integrate the international guys as well."
You might assume that because Schmidt is a former Leinster coach there wouldn't be too much difference between the provincial set-up and the national one, but Gibbes revealed yesterday that the province renamed all their plays at the start of the season.
It means that integration will take some work.
"We had a number of guys involved in the down weeks when the Six Nations wasn't played," he explained.
"Last week the (Ireland) starters were ruled out but most of the reserves we were trying to get involved again.
"So really you are looking at the starting guys getting the terminology right, not necessarily the plays. You don't really need to tell Drico (Brian O'Driscoll) how to run the plays. It is more about remembering what the names are and a lot of that is done away from the field.
"Those guys are quick to get their heads around that stuff so it isn't too much of a drama in that respect.
"But we'd like to have had another game before facing Munster."
Still, Leinster's best performance of the campaign came in the wake of November and Ireland's desperately disappointing defeat to New Zealand when the internationals carried their fury – as well as their form – to Franklin's Gardens and destroyed Northampton.
"Definitely Northampton away was our strongest performance of our season," Kearney said. "It is good to get back to the Aviva Stadium where we lost our last game, where Leinster have been so successful over the last few years.
"These next two weeks are going to make our season for us. We've got an awful lot of work to do and we don't have a lot of time, so time we spend on the field is going to be really important and we have to make sure every minute counts."
So, Penney's words may have caused a little bit of squirming, but Leinster have plenty to focus on themselves this week as "the Six Nations champions" go back to the day job.
"The Six Nations is over," Gibbes said in a valiant effort to change the narrative.
"The story really is two teams in front of a sell-out crowd, two points apart on the table and they happen to be biggest rivals."
It was a nice try, but Penney's billing is far more likely to stick.
Leinster need to take their Six Nations champions and have them hit the ground running now that they're back in blue.