Wednesday 21 March 2018

Liberation of Munster will lead to risks but not always rewards

Munster might want to keep it tight today but that's not the Rob Penney way, writes Brendan Fanning

Backlashes are not unique to the Heineken Cup. In every season-long league in the world you regularly get fixtures where both sides have been emptied the previous week and badly need to fill up with something positive. It's just that the truncated nature of this competition gives added value to these games.

So the meeting of Munster and Edinburgh in Limerick this afternoon suddenly takes on a life of its own. A fairly short life for whoever loses. Michael Bradley has been around long enough not to be surprised at his current predicament. When he looked at the fixture list last summer he will have realised that the European journey might well be over by October.

Edinburgh have no history of success as a club, and neither does their coach. They were woeful last week against Saracens, who average one try per match in the Premiership, and crossed for five in Murrayfield. It seemed a good deal of this was down to lack of leadership and direction in the home ranks, and once Greig Laidlaw departed at half-time, it was not apparent who was running the show thereafter. They were already in trouble when he left, and done for when he didn't return.

Their performance was a bit like walking down Las Ramblas with your wallet sticking out of your pocket. If Barcelona is as infamous for its pickpockets as it is famous for its football club, then so too are Saracens the brand leaders in robo rugby.

Brendan Venter, their technical director, is a powerful character who has crunched the numbers and come up with a system that is utterly rigid on the issue of risk. In your own half of the field it is verbode. They would sooner drop their shorts than run the ball their side of 50 metres.

On the flip side in Murrayfield, we had Edinburgh behaving like bankers in Celtic Tiger Ireland. They obliged the South African-driven Sarries by opening up from positions that begged them to be turned over, and sure enough they were.

"We've looked at all aspects of that: 19-0 at the break, two chances we didn't take and we tried to chase the game from defence which you just can't do," says Bradley. "And they just picked us off. You still have to stick to your game plan."

By the time Saracens were finished with their Fagin routine, the curtain was coming down on a record defeat for Edinburgh and a remarkable shooting stat of 8/9 for Charlie Hodgson.

So Edinburgh fetch up at Thomond Park this afternoon with a record of two wins from six in the Pro12 -- so not much to fall back on there -- and a whole heap of pressure coming from their coach.

"The message the boys need to get from me is that that (performance) is unacceptable," he says. "It's unacceptable for me, it's unacceptable for you guys who write it up, for the supporters, for the city. You just can't do what we did on Saturday. We want a reaction from them in a positive way."

The result may well be a very watchable game of rugby. Edinburgh's progress to the semi-final last season was enabled by teams who played rugby against them. They were two wins from two after the first phase of pool games thanks to both Racing Metro and London Irish being the polar opposite of Saracens. Ulster were not so accommodating when it came to the semi-final in Lansdowne Road. It worries Bradley now that those who want to stop Edinburgh will pick the boring route and shut the game down.

This poses an interesting dilemma for Rob Penney. After 10 games in charge, between friendlies and competitive fixtures, the squad have a clear idea of how the head coach and his assistant Simon Mannix want them to play.

The supporters have had a window on it too, and across all interested parties there are a few locals restless about what happens next, for if Munster are at a crossroads today vis-a-vis their approach against Edinburgh, the signpost will be billboard status in phase two for the back-to-back games with Saracens.

Heineken Cup rugby is a long way from New Zealand's national provincial championship, where Penney earned his corn with Canterbury. The pressure of the European version has the effect of clipping your wings, sometimes focusing the mind on inches rather than yards. Munster made their name on this.

When Penney was being lined up for the job early this year, he did what anyone else would do: he pored over footage of the Reds, seeing what kind of pool he might be diving into. The history of achievement, their status around the world thanks to success in Europe and against touring teams, was clear-cut. Less obvious was what the squad had to offer.

One thing did jump out at him though: the way they were playing wasn't working. Nowhere did it splutter more than against Ulster in the quarter-final last April. If Brian McLaughlin's team would be able to figure out Edinburgh a game later then it was because first they had unlocked Munster's number in Thomond Park.

Tony McGahan, who Penney has replaced, was a very detailed coach who brought a lot to the organisation. By the time they played that quarter-final, however, it was clear that if you kicked to them in their own half, they would kick it back at you -- regardless of how many players you kept in the backfield to mop it up. So Ulster kicked, and then filled the backfield.

The result was that Munster couldn't get out of their own half successfully. They might have concluded that if there were three or four white shirts hanging back waiting for the kick then there had to be space further up the track, space that could be attacked. It didn't happen.

So Penney looked at this and reckoned he could liberate a struggling group to play what was in front of them more than what was on the whiteboard in the dressing room. New coaches nearly always lift the tide purely on the basis of their newness -- everybody wants to impress them. Those with something different to sell do even better. And this is different.

It needed to be. During the peak years of 2005-2008 under Declan Kidney, Munster's game was the best around. Their success was in stringing together phases with tempo and aggression and eventually you caved in and gave them a score. Quickly enough defences improved, to the point where sending solo runners around the corner -- the bedrock of Munster's attack -- developed a Somme vibe to it.

McGahan moved the process on but he was dealing with a group who were all getting old together, and by the end of his tenure half of them were gone. Enter Penney with a whole new energy and focus and in his breast pocket a licence for players to have a go. From wherever they thought appropriate. The picture he painted was on a wide canvas, from one touchline to the other, and off they went.

At the Pro12 launch in September, we asked captain Doug Howlett if he was happy his team had the skills to effect such a broad plan, given the premium it put on lots of things from accuracy of pass to clean out at the tackle. He looked part startled, part offended.

You wonder if Penney dropped in when the core of the team comprised the Flannerys, Leamys, Quinlans and Wallaces, hitting their prime, would this be a really sweet union. Instead he has the last of the old guard, where Paul O'Connell's battle is as much about getting on the field as tearing it up, and Ronan O'Gara -- missing today -- is in the unusual position of having his place questioned.

That leaves us with an interesting match-up at 10 where Ian Keatley and Gregor Hunter will comprise the least experienced Heineken confrontation of the weekend. The intriguing bit will be whether they are orchestrating a spectacular contest or a cage fight.

As a means of upsetting Edinburgh, staying in the competition, and preparing for Saracens all in one, there are plenty who would want Munster to batten down the hatch and ramp up the pressure. It won't happen. Penney won't do it because he doesn't think it will work. And he won't do it because either he is selling a different way to play the game or he isn't -- there are no half measures in his head.

What we will see, however, is a willingness to kick the ball every time it makes more sense to do that than to run. The determining factor will be how Edinburgh's defence is set up this afternoon. This was what Munster clearly didn't do very well in Paris, which in turn has increased the heat on them this afternoon.

Getting those decisions right is half the battle. The really risky bit is that sometimes the best way to relieve pressure is to run -- or at least move the ball to another area of the field before you kick it -- and this is where the skill factor is at a premium. This is what we meant when asking Howlett about the safety of Munster's journey when they went from one touchline to the other within spitting distance of their own sticks.

Maybe when Penney is further along the road with the group they will look better equipped for this brand of rugby on the big days. In the meantime, he will continue to point them in that direction. Coming from Christchurch he will be familiar with sudden and unexpected earth movements. That experience will stand to him when the learning process is painful, and the team are standing behind their own posts.

Munster v Edinburgh,

Sky Sports 2, 12.30

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