Thursday 22 March 2018

Adams insists new Munster boss Penney has quality to answer supporters' prayers

New Zealander Rob Penney is on his way to Munster after being confirmed as Tony McGahan's successor
New Zealander Rob Penney is on his way to Munster after being confirmed as Tony McGahan's successor

Hugh Farrelly

AN unknown coach is not unknown territory for Irish rugby.

There was an element of 'Michael who?' and 'Joe who?' when Cheika and Schmidt, respectively, took over at Leinster, while Tony McGahan operated very much in the background before assuming the head coach's role with Munster.

Ulster's decision to appoint Mark Anscombe as head man next season sparked another frenzy of fact-finding a couple of months ago and now we have confirmation his fellow Kiwi Rob Penney will oversee Munster's fortunes for the next two years.

While there is a bigger issue to consider here as to why Ireland's three main provinces will all be led by foreigners next season -- with no room for proven indigenous coaches such as Eddie O'Sullivan, Brian McLaughlin and Michael Bradley -- the indications are that Munster have done well with Penney.


Three years ago, Australians led the way with Matt Williams at Ulster, Cheika at Leinster and McGahan with Munster, but next season Kiwis will to be the fore in the three main provinces, while Eric Elwood continues to fly the Irish flag in Connacht.

It is a reflection of New Zealand's return to the summit of the global game after ending their 24-year wait for World Cup affirmation last year and to get a true estimation of Penney's worth, you need to talk to the Kiwis.

As a man who worked alongside Penney in New Zealand ahead of a switch to Ireland where he worked with the Munster Academy before joining IRUPA, Hamish Adams is well qualified to judge the new man and his summation is unfailingly positive.

A successful playing career is not a prerequisite for top-level coaches, but it adds to the appreciation of the playing challenge facing those in your care and, although he operated in a different era, Penney is a been-there, done-that merchant.

"He was a quality player," said Adams. "A very good No 8 and back-row for Canterbury for many years. He never made it on to the All Blacks, but Rob was an excellent player, probably unfortunate with the strength of the New Zealand back-row at the time.

"You had guys like (Wayne) 'Buck' Shelford, Zinzan Brooke, Michael Jones and Alan Whetton around in that era, but he was playing regularly for Canterbury and they are obviously one of the strongest provinces in New Zealand."

When his playing days ended, Penney gravitated naturally towards coaching and he and Adams crossed paths when they were both working as development managers for the New Zealand Rugby Union.

"Rob was provincial development manager for Canterbury and I was doing the same job for Manawatu," recalled Adams. "We would have come across each other at age-grade trials, provincial trials, tournaments and NZRU conferences and things like that. He's a good rugby character, a strong rugby character and very highly regarded in New Zealand."

Penney won a Super 12 title as assistant coach with the Crusaders before taking over feeder province Canterbury in 2006 and last season he led the province to their fourth ITM Cup title in succession, an achievement Adams equates to winning four Pro12 titles in a row.

"Yeah, I would say ITM is probably the equivalent of the Pro12, maybe a bit higher in terms of skill levels and Super Rugby is the equivalent of the Heineken Cup," he said.

"There are similarities there in that the international contingent feature primarily in Super Rugby, just as they do in the Heineken Cup over here, but the ITM is a great feeder system and most All Blacks would have come through it.

"Canterbury has been one of the power bases of New Zealand rugby over the last few years with Rob in charge and he has worked with a lot of players who went on to become All Blacks."

Those include the likes of Wyatt Crockett, Isaac Ross, Sam Whitelock, Owen Franks and Colin Slade and, encouragingly for Munster, under Penney, Canterbury gained consistent success from a game plan that married forward intensity with invention out wide.

So, why has he never been offered a Super Rugby contract? It has been suggested that there may have been a political aspect to the 48-year-old not being promoted to the big stage as head coach, but Adams reckons it is more to do with quality of competition and shortage of positions.

"I don't think it is anything to do with a Canterbury man not being accepted in Otago or Waikato or anything like that," said Adams.

"I mean, look at a guy like Dave Rennie -- he was Wellington coach, then he was involved the Hurricanes, then Manawatu and now he's with the Chiefs so I don't think that is a factor.

"New Zealand is a huge feeding ground of coaches in the professional game and unfortunately there are only five positions to coach Super Rugby and I guess there is a little bit of luck and timing involved as well and the bounce of the ball hasn't gone his way.

"Coaching Canterbury and the New Zealand U-20s is still pretty impressive and I'm sure he would have got that break into Super Rugby if he had stayed on, and will in the future."

A good appointment by Munster, then?

"Definitely. Rob gets a lot of respect back home. He has a proven track record of success, a huge knowledge of the game and he is a good bloke as well," concluded Adams.

"I think this is a strong appointment by Munster."

For now, it is impossible to predict what this news will bring beyond a plethora of 'Penney Drops' headlines, but the signs are positive that Munster have got their hands on a proven, progressive coach to replace McGahan.

'Penney's From Heaven'?

We shall see.

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