Qualified success should seal new deal for Penney
Progress being made as Red Army deliver results under intense pressure, writes Jim Glennon
Munster and Perpignan have history, a lot of history, even if the casual observer of last week's game between the sides at Thomond Park could be forgiven for missing it, but yesterday's robust defiance was just what you'd expect from the French side at their Mediterranean home, Stade Aime Giral.
Many years ago, I had the pleasure of playing my first game in the Leinster senior jersey in that Catalan coliseum, in a 'friendly' to mark Armistice Day. I had occasion to check out the local hospital facilities on our way home. Old habits die hard, and yesterday they showed again that they're an entirely different outfit at home -- the Catalonian crowd demand, and invariably get, a blood and guts performance based simply on physical dominance and while the end result was no different from last week, the quality of their resistance was unrecognisable in comparison.
Munster struggled to come to grips with the challenge. Their halfbacks, Cathal Sheridan, in the absence of Conor Murray, and Ian Keatley, failed to impose themselves and as a consequence the units either side of them never gelled with any real fluency. The only unit within the team to step up to the challenge was the scrum, and particularly the front-row of James Cronin, Damien Varley and BJ Botha.
It seems a long time ago now, but my abiding memory of Munster's Pro12 win over Leinster at Thomond Park earlier this season is the voracious hunger of the Munster forwards, with Cronin very much to the fore -- dominant at the scrum and effective in the loose; yesterday he delivered again. The point is well made that, in the absence of Cian Healy, Leinster and Ireland are lucky to have Jack McGrath on hand but, with Cronin and Dave Kilcoyne, the loosehead position is developing into an area of real strength at provincial and international level, and long-term strength at that.
Contracts are the topic of the moment in Irish rugby currently and while most of the attention has been focussed on the dealings at national level of the likes of Murray, Jamie Heaslip, Sean O'Brien and Paul O'Connell, Munster are involved in their own negotiations and planning at this point too. The final months of head coach Rob Penney's contract are imminent and, characteristically, cards are being kept very close to chests. The New Zealander has, however, done well with the limited resources at his disposal and is plotting a safe course through a difficult transition period.
There have been issues over structure and game-plans, but the group is showing progress under his guidance and, while silverware has proven to be elusive, one would assume that the now likely return of successive qualifications for the knockouts should be enough to secure a renewal.
Munster have been under pressure in the group since their loss on day one in Murrayfield, but they've managed to deliver the required results, if not the performances, since.
Being honest, they haven't been up against a whole lot -- an understrength Gloucester and an anaemic Perpignan at home, followed by a limited, if steelier, Perpignan yesterday.
Remember, for all the improvements in performance, they are currently ninth in the French Top 14.
Having said that, Munster, while themselves some distance off that of their vintage predecessors, have delivered when required and the Red Army can now look forward, for a remarkable 15th successive year, to the near certainty of a knockout campaign.
Springtime just wouldn't be the same without them, would it?