Saturday 23 September 2017

Eric Schmidt and Rob Penney: head-to-head for first time

As New Zealand pair go head-to-head for first time, Ruaidhri O'Connor assesses the new Munster supremo's chances of emulating Leinster rival's stunning success

Joe Schmidt

Experience

It was a case of 'Joe who?' when Schmidt was named as Leinster coach, and a shaky start left many questioning the wisdom of his appointment.

Fast-forward two years and the province are desperate to nail down the future of a man who has not only led them to two Heineken Cups in a row, but commands the universal respect of his players and -- when they are at their best -- has them playing in a style that has never before been seen in this country.

The Lions are believed to want him to lead their backline in Australia next summer, while he will be touted for the Ireland job if Declan Kidney's contract is not renewed.

Family circumstances may see him return home after this, or next, season and with two European medals in his back pocket he will not be short on suitors. Schmidt has earned a big reputation through the scale of his victories.

Rating: 4/5

Playing resources

Leinster are suffering an injury crisis, but Schmidt's squad remains the envy of most of his counterparts. Second-row is the main area of concern and, having lost Nathan Hines and Brad Thorn in successive seasons, they have had to look at long-term Irish prospects, recruiting young Englishman Tom Denton -- whose mother is from Belfast -- and South African Quinn Roux, who can qualify through residency. Both look like good players, but following World Cup winner Thorn is an impossible job.

Leinster came in for fierce criticism for their collapse against Connacht, but when you look at the leadership void created by the absence of Rob Kearney, Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy, Jonny Sexton, Eoin Reddan, Isaac Boss, Leo Cullen, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip, it is easy to see why they struggled. There is no side in Europe who could cope with those players missing. Those fit will return this weekend, and leadership shouldn't be a problem.

Rating: 4

Back-room team

Forward coach Jono Gibbes remains relatively unheralded, but he has consistently been a force behind Leinster's hardening process under Michael Cheika and Schmidt.

Retaining the services of the intimidating former All Black has proved to be a coup for former Clermont backs coach Schmidt, who can leave the forwards' basics in the hands of a man who instantly commands your attention when he walks into the room, and scrum guru Greg Feek, who is another canny addition. Local boy Richie Murphy has earned the trust of Sexton as skills and kicking coach, while Emmet Farrell's analysis is a less mentioned factor behind the scenes.

Throw in Leinster's medical team, who somehow managed to get O'Brien and O'Driscoll fit for crucial games last season, their conditioning set-up that has its players in prime nick and an Academy that is consistently producing excellent youngsters, and it is clear that Schmidt has all the support he needs.

Rating: 4

Game plan

Relatively simple but devastatingly effective; Schmidt's focus on skills, passing and lines of running has reaped huge dividends.

When Leinster hit form, which they have not come close to doing this season, they are almost unstoppable, with players No 1-15 involved in taking the ball on and off-loading to well-placed runners from deep.

Their ability to do so comes from the solidity that Gibbes and Feek work so hard to ensure. Leinster's pack rarely takes a backward step, while their line-out is generally excellent and provides a solid platform for some of the best runners in the European game to do their work.

Schmidt runs a defence that has been the worst in the Pro12 so far, but in previous seasons has been water-tight. Expect improvements in this area in the coming weeks as the stakes get higher.

Rating: 4.5

Adversity management

Schmidt's public persona is that of an affable Kiwi who has somehow found his way into the best job in the world, but behind the boyish smile is a ruthless operator who was not afraid to change things when Leinster were in serious trouble against Northampton in the 2011 Heineken Cup final. A former school principal and coach of the New Zealand Schools team, you can be sure that behind closed doors he has a hard edge, and Monday's video review of the Connacht debacle was sure to be tough.

Whenever he has been tested, Schmidt has responded well, and there is no doubting his ability to cope when things are going against him.

Rating: 4.5

Verdict

The top dog in European and the most wanted man around, Schmidt may have short-term problems with injury and form, but he has earned the trust of supporters to be given time to get it right.

Total: 21/25

Rob Penney

Experience

When Penney went up against Tana Umaga and Anthony Foley for the Munster job, he appeared to be the outsider but anyone who knows their rugby would have read his CV and realised that he has real coaching substance.

New Zealand's ITM Cup may rank below Super Rugby and struggle for exposure in these parts, but winning it four times in a row with Canterbury is an outstanding feat in anybody's book. That Penney did it by establishing a hard-nosed pack and some exciting backs meant that he ticked all the boxes for what Munster needed.

Factor in the new man's work as forwards coach of the perennially dominant Crusaders in Super Rugby and his stint with the 'Baby Blacks' at the U-20 Junior World Cup and he put an almost irresistible case to the province.

Unlike Schmidt, he has yet to win one of rugby's biggest prizes as head coach, but he is at a different stage of his career.

Rating: 3

Playing resources

Just six of the team who started the 2008 Heineken Cup final remain at Munster. Of them, only Denis Hurley is under 30 and he is not a guaranteed starter when the Reds are at full strength.

Previous coach Tony McGahan started the rebuilding and Casey Laulala, James Downey, Sean Dougall and CJ Stander have been added to the ranks for this campaign.

The Academy down south may have its critics but there are still gems like Paddy Butler, Dave O'Callaghan and JJ Hanrahan coming through and, while they will take their time developing, there is room for hope.

Ronan O'Gara, Peter Stringer, Doug Howlett, Donncha O'Callaghan, Marcus Horan and Paul O'Connell may not be the players they once were, but at provincial level they can all provide leadership and nous for the younger men in the team, while BJ Botha and Wian du Preez provide steel to their front-row efforts.

Munster remain a work in progress, but can beat anyone on their day.

Rating: 3.5

Back-room team

Penney is supported by his fellow New Zealander Simon Mannix and Munster legend Foley in a management team that is finding its way together.

Mannix was a popular figure with the players at his former club Racing Metro, where his opinions didn't fit with the authoritarian Pierre Berbizier and he eventually lost the battle and left.

The early evidence is that Mannix -- a former out-half with one cap for the All Blacks -- is implementing a wide style of play that will suit the pace of Simon Zebo, Keith Earls and Felix Jones (when he returns to the field).

Foley is working in tandem with Penney to develop a young pack of forwards who need hardening that will come through battles like Saturday's. Their set-piece work has been good, but they need to harden up on the road.

Rating: 3.5

Game plan

Wide, wide and wide again. Penney wants his side to avail of the danger of big men like Downey and Laulala in the centre and take advantage of the space their presence creates outside.

Based on a solid, go-forward pack and a set-piece that is designed not to take a backward step, the idea is to use the pace out wide to do the damage. It is very different to the pillars upon which Munster's successes have been built in the past, but when it clicks it looks exciting.

They have struggled against the higher-quality teams they have played, with the Ospreys and Ulster causing problems away, and Saturday will give them a thorough examination ahead of their Heineken Cup march. However, the early signs are positive.

Rating: 3.5

Adversity management

Deprived of the dominance they enjoyed midway through the last decade, Munster have relied on getting results by the seat of their pants in recent times, as exemplified by O'Gara's last-gasp heroics in the pool stages of last season's Heineken Cup.

Against Ulster in the Pro12 last month, though, the forwards and scrum-half Conor Murray couldn't provide the returning Ireland out-half with the right opportunity to drop his trademark goal, and Munster headed south with just a bonus point, while last weekend they could not come up with the goods against the Ospreys in Swansea.

When the team leaders are restored, we will have a better idea of Penney's ability under pressure but, as yet, it is too early to fully judge. However, ITM Cups don't come easily, so Penney has been in the must-win position with favourites before and come out the right side.

Rating: 4

Verdict

Still at the beginning of the road and the early signs have been positive -- Penney seems further along the line than Schmidt was two years ago, but has plenty to do if he wants to surpass his fellow Kiwi.

Total: 16.5/25

Irish Independent

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