Monday 22 January 2018

George Hook: Penney's game plan is killing Reds -- only more traditional tactics can save their season

George Hook

George Hook

At some time in the future, historians will read yesterday's result against Edinburgh at Thomond Park and assume that it resembled the other victories over average opponents over the previous 15 years.

Nobody who watched Munster's cack-handed efforts yesterday will have seen anything that resembled the golden era or that gave any indications of a return to that glorious past.

For 70 minutes of dominant territory and possession, the men in red delivered an error-strewn performance that was saved by a final 10 minutes that not only gave the scoreboard a lopsided look but secured an all-important bonus point.

For spirit, unwillingness to give up and understanding of how to score tries, Munster scored 10 out of 10. Judged by the same criteria, Edinburgh scored 2/10.

The players in red remain true to the traditions of the province and will probably keep their coach in a job.

Failing

The Scots never looked seriously interested and will probably make Michael Bradley's contract redundant by May. As the game unfolded, one was struck by the error count of the visitors, yet the home team was failing at twice the rate. Munster are now only capable of scoring tries against teams that lie down.

At half-time, Edinburgh went in just six points adrift and looking forward to the wind at their backs.

The game turned early in the second half and Bradley will rue his ill-luck. A huge clearance by Gregor Hunter could easily have ended up in the Munster corner.

Instead, it rolled out of play and there was a Munster scrum back on the Edinburgh '22'. It led to a series of drives by the forwards and ended with Conor Murray (6/10) getting over under the posts. The game was effectively over.

Scrum-half Murray had a better game yesterday and made a conscious effort to pass quickly.

However, like his half-back partner Ian Keatley, his kicking lacked authority, one box-kick excepted. He blew a fantastic chance when a wonderful steal by his forwards presented him with a 64-carat opportunity to kick into space for his backs to chase. Instead, he opted for the safety of touch.

I remain to be convinced that the Rob Penney system will work. In fact, I am certain it will fail and a return to basics is required.

Munster are now distinctly lateral and have crowded the pitch with forwards who get in each other's way as they attempt the all-singing, all-dancing style espoused by the coach.

Penney (below) has put his two best attackers Doug Howlett (6/10) and Simon Zebo (7/10) into the crowded traffic of mid-pitch and gives the space out wide to slow-moving forwards. The result was that the big men botched what few chances came the team's way.

At times it was embarrassing to watch forwards attempt passes and catches that were clearly beyond them.

Keatley's (6/10) tactical kicking, with two exceptions, was again poor. He utterly failed to pin Edinburgh inside their '22' and allow the forwards to do what they do best.

Munster scored four tries but just one was the result of a cohesive continuity move. The rest came from the old biff, bang and wallop in the pack.

Penney needs to be asked a couple of simple questions at the next press conference: does he really believe that Donncha O'Callaghan and Co have a better chance of scoring on the wing than Zebo and Howlett?

Furthermore, does he believe that he is creating space out wide? Yesterday, every time the ball carrier received the ball he was faced by a phalanx of defenders.

We saw Peter O'Mahony (5/10) faced by four, Zebo by three and Howlett by two as James Downey (4/10) and Casey Laulala (4/10) never threatened the break that would set free people outside.

It was no coincidence that things began to happen when Felix Jones got on the pitch. One prays for the young full-back's health for the rest of the season.

There were plus marks in yesterday's performance. Paul O'Connell (8/10) reminded us just what a towering presence he is in the tight and a dominant competitor in the line-out.

Dave Kilcoyne (8/10) confirmed the coach's faith with an outstanding performance in the tight and loose. He scrummaged efficiently and saw off the experienced Geoff Cross. In fact, Munster gave away penalties on the other side, where BJ Botha never looked comfortable.

The back-to-back games against Saracens in December will determine the pool.

Munster will hardly qualify if they lose another match, so an undefeated remainder will be necessary against what despite their opening two victories looks a far-from-unbeatable outfit.

However, that outcome cannot be achieved with the current tactical approach.

Penney may find it unpalatable but he needs a complete change of game plan.

Murray inside Ronan O'Gara could play a support role for the pack to back up a kicking game from No 10.

This team is capable of grinding out a result playing a game that they understand and that their traditions encourage.

Irish Independent

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