'We are masters of our own destiny'
Penney insists Munster must improve their decision-making for must-win clashes against French side
THE flights are booked, the plans made, but as Rob Penney so succinctly put it yesterday: "There's no point jumping on the plane to Perpignan if we don't do the job at home."
Munster's coach knows enough about the club he controls to know what the next 10 days mean to their season and to his own future.
Yesterday, he expressed a desire to remain with the Reds beyond the expiration of his current contract at the end of the season. Already on top of the Pro12, if his team are sitting pretty in Pool 6 of the Heineken Cup when he next reaches the negotiating table it would strengthen his hand considerably.
The knock-on effect of October's failure to turn up at Murrayfield hits home over the next two weekends. A relatively manageable group has become as tight as they come after two games and Sunday's dalliance with a slightly decimated, but still decent, Perpignan side takes on a greater significance.
Winning is the priority, but bonus- point management comes into the equation too. Five points is the goal, but denying the Catalans the opportunity to return home with a point is equally paramount.
The return leg at the Stade Aime Giral is an altogether more fearsome proposition. "It is an exciting time," Penney admitted. "It is great to be here and the beauty of it is we are really masters of our own destiny in two competitions.
"This group is very capable of seeing it through if they have prepared well and can see it through to the levels we are capable of. Certainly there is no reason why we cannot put ourselves in a really good frame and give us something really exciting to look forward to at the end of January.
"This six weeks is the guts (of the season) and hopefully we are sitting here at the end of this period having some pretty positive conversations."
Perpignan, who arrive in Limerick this week, have been playing a brand of rugby based on power and size up front and a fast and loose approach in the backs.
When they click they can be a delight to watch, when they don't they hand their opponents opportunities by the dozen. It's one of the reasons behind the inconsistency that sees them occupying ninth place on the Top 14 ladder.
Although his side have performed well this season, Penney sees plenty of room for improvement ahead of a step up in class against the Catalans.
The mistakes you might get away with against the likes of the Dragons and Zebre will be punished by the ball players in Perpignan's ranks. The New Zealander wants greater care taken with possession.
"Ball control is consistently an area of concern for us and around that is our skill execution," he said. "We are nowhere near within the bands we would deem to be acceptable.
"One is the decision making of the ball carrier and one is the decision making of the support people, but we get those bits right and we will start to be a much more dangerous side.
"There is a little bit of frustration in there at the moment because we are much more capable than some of our performances would indicate.
"But credit to the lads, they are working hard and they know more than anybody it is just going through this little transition process that, I say, decision making on both ends, get that right, would be the biggest area for us."
One level of comfort that has been consistently available to Penney has been the strength of hooker available to him. Both Irish internationals, Damien Varley and Mike Sherry, have shared the load throughout his time with the club and they have gobbled up all of the minutes between them this season.
Sherry's cruciate injury has deprived him of that key double act going into this crucial period and it means that either Duncan Casey or Niall Scannell will be on the bench on Sunday.
Neither man has made an appearance this season, but with Casey marginal favourite to get the nod, Penney expects the man he asks to step up to do so.
"(They) have been working hard behind the scenes, they don't have the experience as such but are two very capable footballers," the coach said.
"Duncan has come through the club rugby system and Niall has been involved with the Irish U-20s – cometh the hour, cometh the man, we have got to thrust these guys into it now because that is where we are at.
"Damien is a warrior, though. It's the position we are in and we have to deal with that. We are really confident in the two lads coming through. They haven't had the experience and it will be a cauldron, whether it is a Thomond Park cauldron or a Perpignan cauldron."
Penney wants the vast experience around the youngsters in the Munster pack to get them through.
"They are going to need to be assisted through some pressure situations," he said. "It will need to be made easier for them by the experience around them and that's just what you would expect when young guys are thrust into a pressure situation. But we have got faith that they will do a great job."
Penney hinted that Ian Keatley remains the man in position to hold on to the No 10 jersey despite the claims of JJ Hanrahan, who has impressed while his rival nursed his injury problems during November. Gone are the days when Ronan O'Gara got Munster through these tight Heineken Cup clashes, but Penney called on Dubliner Keatley to make his mark.
"We still haven't made a decision on the starting 10, but we'd have to say that Ian's still got the inside track at the moment," he said. "He's got massive shoes to fill as we know, he's been going well probably without setting the world on fire and it'd be nice if Ian could approach the game injury-free and really show what he is capable of."
Despite the front-liners denied to him by injury and the hole his team put themselves in by losing to Edinburgh, the Munster coach paints a positive picture of where the Pro12 leaders are headed going into the most important section of their season.
They'll have to board that flight to Perpignan either way, but Sunday will determine the direction of the regime and the remainder of the season. It's that important.