independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Penney must adapt vision to suit his squad

Kiwi needs to mix traditional Munster brawn with expansive attack for grand plan to work

Munster head coach Rob Penney must get his message across to the players if the province are to advance into the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup. Photo: Sportsfile

ROB PENNEY'S greatest strength as Munster coach is that he has a clear vision, a way he wants the game to be played.

One of the few legitimate criticisms of the previous coaching regime was that there were too many voices when it came to deciding how the team would play and the tactics they would employ.

From the start, Penney has been the one setting the agenda. Others within the coaching ticket and playing staff have autonomy to speak their minds and add their opinions, but when the final decision is made, Penney's the one making it. That's to be applauded and encouraged. Leaders need to have confidence in their own judgment.

But leaders also need to be adaptable and strong enough to admit when something isn't working.

A disconnect exists with Munster at present. Whether something's being lost in translation between coach and players, whether or not the players are good enough to put Penney's plan into action or whether or not the game is suited to this side of the world is uncertain.

The only certainty is that something has to give, on both sides. For example, the game plan cannot be faulted for the forwards' inability to make the most of attacking opportunities afforded them.

Munster are facing into two weekends that will define their season. Irish teams are judged on how they fare in the Heineken Cup, not in the league. If Munster win and score four tries in both games, they will qualify for the quarter-finals of the competition.

But, even if they achieve that, the grander scheme must also be addressed. Below are some of the questions Munster's hierarchy must answer for this season and beyond.

Is the grand plan working?

No. The problem is that while the ball is going left to right and back again, everything is lateral and there is no penetration. Nobody attempts a cut-back or a variation and Cardiff showed that with a drift defence, they could snuff the attack out on the fringes.

Munster have become far too predictable in their play. Opposing defences know that they don't have to commit to tackling players in possession because they are going to pass every time. All the opposition need to do is shepherd players to the touchline and possession will be turned over.

It is valid to suggest that the game as played by Canterbury, which is the model it is based on, is not transferable to the northern hemisphere. Canterbury play rugby in hard-ground weather whereas the majority of the Heineken Cup and Pro 12 season is played in soft conditions with heavy rain.

There is no good reason to have second-rows clogging up the space on the tramlines. Whatever the game plan, surely it makes more sense to have wingers on the fringes instead of lumbering and slow-moving forwards.

Do Munster have the players to execute the game as Rob Penney and Simon Mannix want?

No. Munster have a multitude of players at a certain standard but at the highest level of competition they are still reliant on a small number of top-quality competitors. Every so often, a Simon Zebo or Peter O'Mahony will come through but too many of the fringe players are just not up to the required standard.

There are only a small handful of schools playing rugby in Munster so to rely on that conveyor belt is foolhardy. Munster need to send scouts beyond the borders and there is no harm is looking to poach from other provinces.

Leinster recognised the dearth of second-row talent coming through their ranks last season and embarked on a recruitment drive aimed at bringing new locks into the club. This innovation was aimed specifically at those between the ages of 17 and 23 and who were over 6'5"– regardless of whether they had any experience of playing the sport or not.

Are the problems limited to the new plan?

The players are also culpable and have to take responsibility for their own shortcomings.

Penney has emphasised that players have the autonomy to make decisions for themselves on the pitch and unless they are under instruction to do so (and they're not), the coach cannot be blamed for players not running into gaps as they appear.

The younger generation have made all the right noises regarding their wanting to "take ownership" of the team but so far there has been more talk than action. Where is the leadership from the likes of Conor Murray, O'Mahony and Zebo? Who is talking? Who is setting the standards? Who is demanding the players better themselves? So far it has been the elder generation of Ronan O'Gara, Doug Howlett and James Coughlan who have been leading by example.

Are Munster compromised by a lack of pace behind the scrum?

Yes. Casey Laulala has a step but not a burst of speed, neither is James Downey hugely quick while Keith Earls has speed but is a winger. Who can they play in the centre this weekend? It is a choice of two from the three mentioned or opting for Ian Keatley or JJ Hanrahan at 12, which still doesn't solve the issue at 13. Zebo is the only true speed merchant in the team and he is out on the wing.

Is the situation salvageable?

The innovations from Penney and Mannix have merit. It is time to switch to Plan B, though, which is a blend of the new and the traditional. Munster need to evolve and are still very much in a period of transition. Rugby is also evolving and the traditional 10-man game Munster built its success on is no longer enough. The arsenal has to be expanded, which is where Penney's expansive game comes into play.

It is incumbent on the coach to find a way of marrying his vision with what suits the players at his disposal. O'Gara and the outside backs must play closer to the gain line. Against Cardiff the backs were taking the ball too deep and were doing so from standing starts. For this to work, the service to O'Gara has to be quicker.

Murray needs to cut out the tiny adjustment he makes when he picks the ball before passing, which will speed up the move.

If they can marry the best of Penney's vision with the best of Munster's traditional values and grunt, then certainly Edinburgh are vulnerable.

And in the longer term?

Munster have to recruit heavily but cleverly. They announced nine contract extensions last week and more are expected in the coming days. These are all currently rostered players, though. They need to go outside the province.

Leinster's Ian Madigan, for example, is a player Munster should chase. Madigan signed a two-year extension with Leinster last November but why not investigate if there is a way to negotiate around that?

When O'Gara, O'Connell and Howlett are gone, Munster will be in trouble. Madigan is Irish qualified, 23 years old and a good out-half. His kicking from the tee needs work but who better to learn from than O'Gara? The plus from Madigan's perspective is that O'Gara is in the twilight of his career.

Jonathan Sexton is 27 and going nowhere. Is Madigan confident of knocking Sexton from his perch? Or would his career be better served by moving to a team where the out-half has more years behind him than ahead in a playing perspective?

There is a cabal of young players coming through the ranks. O'Mahony and Murray have already established themselves, while Tommy O'Donnell and Dave O'Callaghan are beginning to build their reputations.

Beyond that, much is talked about Hanrahan's potential but he has yet to back up the hype. Two other prospects are winger Luke O'Dea and back-row forward Barry O'Mahony. Is this enough on which to rebuild the province?

Munster need to embark on a serious recruitment drive and need to do so quickly. And they need to make a No 13 a priority.

What are the prospects for this season?

Munster will beat Edinburgh, probably with the bonus point. Racing Metro play Saracens on Saturday and could very well pitch up to Limerick on Sunday week level on points with them, which would make for a very fraught affair at Thomond Park.

Much will depend on the outcome of that Metro/Saracens game but if Munster have a sniff of a quarter-final spot, have momentum built up from their trip to Murrayfield and have a plan in place that suits the players, then they are well capable of finishing this part of the season on a high.

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