Rob Penney: Our inconsistency is unique
Munster boss never sure which team will turn up as he hopes players can draw on personal motivation to avoid ending season on sour note
Published 14/05/2014 | 02:30
THERE cannot be much Rob Penney has yet to learn about his players after 60 games in charge of Munster, but there is something about his team that he can't put his finger on.
His time at the province could draw to a close on Friday night in Scotstoun and he still can't get his head around one key issue that is likely to be already dominating the thoughts of his successor – inconsistency.
There can't have been anyone of the red persuasion who watched events unfold at Thomond Park last Saturday night without being disconcerted by the whole experience.
Here were professional rugby players of the highest calibre unable to perform basic tasks; high achievers on the global stage reduced to the level of junior plodders.
Their task this week is to raise their game for an away trip to one of Europe's in-form sides who are riding the crest of an eight-game winning wave – they even won in Limerick just last month.
The debate on Penney's legacy will rage on beyond his departure to Japan, but he will undoubtedly leave Anthony Foley with a better hand than the one he was dealt when he first arrived from Canterbury.
However, there is one element of the Munster psyche that the New Zealander is unlikely to crack in the short time he has left.
"I suppose history is a great predictor of the future and you'd have to say that, at times, we've had to battle to get that level of attachment required to perform," he said of Munster's ability to produce one week and not show the next.
"Nobody knows what's going on in the boys' heads leading into games and it's very hard to predict where they're at. It only manifests itself once the contest starts and sometimes then it's too late.
"It's true of every team, or every team I've been a part of. You get them well connected to the game and to each other and the emotional attachment takes care of itself because it becomes an obligation to perform well.
"But I suppose the inconsistency is something that's a bit challenging here, that's a bit unique."
In mid-season, it looked like Penney and his team had mastered their affliction.
Last season was a domestic disaster hidden by the heroic run to a Heineken Cup semi-final, but this year's Pro12 campaign was a far more solid affair.
Their nightmarish opening Heineken Cup defeat to Edinburgh was followed by a nine-game winning run that only ended in controversial circumstances at Ulster in early January and they managed to put that to one side and keep their habit up until March when they slipped up at the Scarlets.
In the midst of that run, they went to Scotstoun and, led by Peter O'Mahony, they produced a display full of grit and determination that appeared to announce their arrival as contenders.
Since the defeat in Llanelli, Munster have lost away to Leinster and Toulon in games they might have won and failed to deliver in their final home games against Glasgow and Ulster.
The high point and feel-good factor of Toulouse has almost worn off, the home semi-final slipped from their control and the season is in danger of coming to a fairly grim conclusion on Friday.
Munster's players have spoken about writing their own chapter and creating a new identity for the province and, while the Heineken Cup is the ultimate goal, achieving consistent performances at league level is a key to being a good team.
And, although they have improved their winning return from 50pc to 73pc – their best since winning the competition back in 2011, their coach still thinks they have a way to go before rectifying their mental slip-ups.
"You have got to be emotionally connected to the event before you can even think about technical and tactical stuff," Penney explained.
"I think we were devoid of our emotional connection last week. We will just see if we can get a response, there's not a lot of time to do a lot of changes.
"The players are capable, they know what they are meant to do and they know when they are meant to do it. So to that end it's just about get the emotional attachment, about getting excited by getting the brain ticking over in the right way."
One imagines that a semi-final and the prospect of the season ending prematurely will focus the minds this week.
And Penney is holding no truck with the notion that his side had got the dirge out of their system against the Ulster reserves.
"It was just a shambles last weekend; so disappointing. No, don't take any comfort out of that at all," he said.
"It would be very disappointing to have it end on that note, but it's got to end at some point. That's the reality of the competition and only one team's going to go through on Friday night.
"Whether it's fear, whether it's passion, whether it's inspiration from the joys of playing the game, people will get their motivation from their own purposes. The hope is that they draw on that, whatever they draw on, and can give Glasgow a really good, hard game and make it a legitimate contest."
Scotstoun is a venue that holds bad memories for Penney. Possibly the nadir of his time at Munster came in March last year when his side went down 51-24 to the Warriors in what the coach described as an "embarrassment."
Two weeks later, they went to London and beat Harlequins with a stunning performance.
Back using similar language as he sifts through the wreckage of another shocking defeat, he will be hoping the players can find it within themselves to make the necessary improvements.
Otherwise, his 61st game will be his last.