Penney trawling for a solution in Munster rubble
THE fog provided the perfect backdrop as an air of despondency enveloped Munster coach Rob Penney in the aftermath of his side's loss to Cardiff Blues at Musgrave Park.
The cold fingers of disappointment clearly dug deep and offered little, if any, comfort.
Munster were awful. The manner of the performance – more than the result one suspects – had sapped whatever optimism Penney had remaining on the night, momentarily at least.
Since arriving in Ireland six months ago, the New Zealander coach has been a living lesson in positivity. No matter the situation he or his team have experienced, he has been able to accentuate the positives.
Saturday's result wasn't just another speed-bump along Munster's evolutionary road though. It was, as Penney described it "more of a pot-hole" – Munster were woeful.
There were some fleeting moments of excellence – Ronan O'Gara's kicking from the hand was sublime – but overall it was dire stuff, explaining the coach's downbeat post-match demeanour.
He will, without doubt, bounce back. And the team will too. What is worrisome is that on Saturday, for 80-plus minutes, they were a team who either lacked ideas or lacked the weapons needed to break down an average enough and under-strength Cardiff side.
It is instructive that the only times they really threatened were when O'Gara kicked them deep into the Cardiff '22' and gave his side the platform from which to mount serious assaults on the Blues' try-line.
Their line-out was an absolute mess, however, and even though they were put within touching distance of the whitewash, they were unable to cross it.
They weren't helped in this facet by the loss of Mike Sherry so early and Conor Murray's exit also had a negative impact on Munster, especially in the set-piece.
"Sean Henry did a great job when he came on but he hasn't had a lot of time on the pitch. And we also lost Conor Murray early on. You then have two of the spine of the group removed out of the playing 25 inside the first 20 minutes, which impacts," said Penney.
Allowing for those disruptions, what was especially disturbing was that with ball in hand Munster were positively toothless. The number of passes made by Munster men was certainly in treble figures. The yards gained as a result of all those passes was not.
There is no point in passing the ball if you are doing so from too deep a position to make any sort of inroads. And there is certainly no point in mindlessly shovelling the ball wide when the percentage move is to take the ball through the middle and make yards through hard carries.
In this regard, the break by Dave Kilcoyne in the 72nd minute was instructive. Munster had put the ball through the hands innumerable times and had nothing to show for it, but when Kilcoyne took the ball into the breadbasket he was still behind the gainline. The prop instinctively knew that something different was needed and he simply charged at the Cardiff defence.
Blues' players bounced off him like skittles in the wave of a bowling-ball and Munster surged forward in his wake.
That the move ultimately came to naught is not important. That they made ground and put themselves in a position to score by what some would call 'old-fashioned' rugby is.
Munster need to beat both Edinburgh and Racing Metro in their last two Heineken Cup pool outings. And they need to score four tries in at least one of the games if they are to qualify for the quarter-finals.
Where those tries are going to come from remains the burning question.
They will have to adjust the way they play the game. This must include using James Downey in a more traditional vein, coming off O'Gara's shoulder, taking the ball into contact and forcing Edinburgh to commit people. Only then will the space behind be opened up for their strike runners.
There is little to be gained by having a player of Downey's physique and attributes in the team and simply using him as a conduit to move the ball wide.
The grand plan of 'width every time' in its current guise isn't working. It is also too predictable.
The slump of Penney's shoulders in the immediate aftermath of Saturday's dispiriting performance was perfectly understandable. His tenure in Munster so far has been a hugely challenging one and he is facing into a season-defining fortnight.
What he is attempting to do is laudable and has merit. But he must find a way to marry how he wants the game to be played – open, fast, expansive, almost Sevens-like – with the traditional ideals of Munster, which are based on strong defence, a willingness to take the opposition on in full-on combat and adapting to the circumstances as they arise.
There is cause for optimism. Munster are close to the play-off spots for the Pro12 League and have a very real chance of qualifying for the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup. And they have, in patches, been playing some excellent rugby.
Saturday night was a huge step back though. They made 29 unforced errors in the game, lost at least three of their own line-outs and ran the ball into touch another five times when on the attack.
Possession wasn't a problem, what the players did with that possession was.
"We had something like 29 first-phase gainlines, they hit two. So reading stats like that we did get on the front foot and we got some momentum up at times, but then we'd run into touch," said Penney.
"I'm not sure how many times we got bundled into touch on the edge, half a dozen at least. We had ample possession and we just made so many errors.
"It was a frustrating night."
Defensively they were poor, too. Tackles were missed – that Robin Copeland went through unmolested for Cardiff's second try is unforgivable.
The home defence was also carved open in the build-up to Owen Williams' 43rd-minute try, a score that pushed Cardiff 10-3 in front.
At that juncture the result was still salvageable, but Munster couldn't capitalise on the excellent positions they were being put into and only for an uncharacteristic forward pass from Jamie Roberts to Williams, the winger would have crossed for a second try on 68 minutes.
Munster will spend this morning sifting through the wreckage of the performance in an effort to figure out why they were so abject.
For the sake of their season they desperately need to come up with answers and solutions. With a return to European action imminent, time is not on their side.
Munster – F Jones; D Howlett, K Earls (C Laulala 58), J Downey, D Hurley (I Keatley 60); R O'Gara, C Murray (D Williams 15); D Kilcoyne (W du Preez 74), M Sherry (S Henry 23), S Archer (BJ Botha 62); D Foley (B Holland 58), D Ryan; T O'Donnell (CJ Stander 66), S Dougall, J Coughlan.
Cardiff Blues – J Tovey (L Halfpenny 53); O Williams, R Smith, J Roberts, H Robinson; R Patchell, L Jones (A Walker 62); S Hobbs (P Tamba 69), R Williams (K Dacey 69), B Bourrust (S Andrews h-t): B Davies, L Reed (J Down 57); J Navidi, S Warburton, R Copeland (L Hamilton 71).
Ref – N Owens (WRU).