‘Penney the right man for Munster – a winner’
Fitzgerald hails Kiwi’s drive and ability to tune into province’s unique culture
THERE was an air of quiet satisfaction surrounding Munster rugby yesterday.
It was never part of the plan to have to replace Tony McGahan as head coach at this juncture, rather to have the Australian continue for one or two more years before handing over to natural successor, Anthony Foley.
However, once that situation was thrust upon the province by McGahan's entirely understandable decision to take up a significant position with his native Australia, Munster were determined not to rush through a replacement.
Now, after a comprehensive selection procedure yielded the name of Canterbury coach Rob Penney, it is clear they are sure they have got the right man.
Munster chief executive Garret Fitzgerald was happy to explain the thought process yesterday and stressed that finding someone who could tune into the culture and ethos of the province was foremost in their minds.
It has always been thus in Munster, be it in the quest for new players or coaches, and Fitzgerald, who is immersed in the province's history through his own playing, coaching and now administrating experience, has no doubts about Penney's ability to acclimatise.
"We interviewed a lot of higher-profile individuals than Rob and we had an idea of the type of individual we were looking for," said Fitzgerald. "On first meeting him, he is an imposing man, he is an ex-back-row forward and he has a very good presence, that was your first impression.
"He appeared a very genuine person and all of those things are important before you get to rugby issues. When it got down to the end and the last few who were in it, there was a lot of thought put into it but he certainly made an impression on your first meeting with him, and his love of the game, and he gave the impression of being a winner."
The high-profile names referenced by Fitzgerald are understood to have included the likes of Wayne Smith, Nick Mallet and John Kirwan, but the CEO stressed that financial constraints were not the reason they went with Penney.
"Not really," he said. "You do have a budget and we had a budget set out beforehand about what we were prepared to spend, but it wasn't an issue in eliminating any of the high-profile coaches.
"Coaches in Ireland are paid as well as any of the coaches in the UK. I did quite a bit of research on that and there is no major difference in the budgets available.
"In fact I would say coaches here are paid better than three-quarters of the coaches in the UK. So, did it eliminate any of the high-profile coaches from the position? No it didn't."
Forwards coach Foley was the established favourite before Penney got the nod and is imbued in the Munster culture, how did the former Heineken Cup-winning captain handle the news?
"The first thing is that Anthony knew he had a job anyway, regardless of what it was because he was in contract," explained Fitzgerald. "Anthony is a mature, respected person who understands the situation, I think he was disappointed which is understandable given his commitment to Munster and his love of Munster itself.
"But I think he realises that he is part of the future of Munster himself and it is an opportunity to better himself and to learn again and I am sure there are lots of things that Rob will learn off him as well. I thought that Anthony was very positive about the whole thing."
Fitzgerald added that Penney, a forwards specialist himself, is delighted to have Foley as his right-hand man and requested as much during the interview process.
"Prior to ever being offered the job, and even on first interview, the continuity from within the group was hugely important (to Penney) and he didn't ever envisage a situation where he wouldn't have people from the previous regime involved," said Fitzgerald.
"On the second interview he openly stated that in the event of him being successful, he would definitely want Anthony Foley to stay as his forwards coach."
Penney's appointment means three of the four Irish provinces will be masterminded by New Zealanders next season with Penney joining Ulster's Mark Anscombe and Leinster's Joe Schmidt on the Kiwi coaching list, but Fitzgerald is still optimistic about the progression of Irish coaching.
"I don't think it's any bad reflection on where things are in Ireland," he said.
"Professional rugby today is a business and you normally try to get the best people to run your business.
"Part of developing as a head coach at international level, nowadays, people need to work overseas and get experience.
"We have the reverse example of that now with Mickey Bradley and Mark McCall, who have had great experience and gone elsewhere.
"The difficulty Irish coaches have is that there's only one employer in Ireland as a professional coach. And I suppose the risk level is a lot higher if there's only one employer.
"We have a lot of excellent coaches in Ireland that would succeed at professional level if they could get sufficient experience, but the way the marketplace and industry is I think they've got to go abroad to get experience."
As for Munster's unique twin-base existence, Fitzgerald said Penney had no issue with the split between Limerick and Cork and said there were no immediate plans to base squad training in a single place.
"For the immediate short term it will continue," Fitzgerald added.
"He visited each of the areas himself, he visited all of the training facilities, he visited Thomond Park, Musgrave Park, saw all the facilities, understood the situation, drove form Cork to Limerick on two different days, assessed the whole situation.
"It is unique in itself, but it is something that history created rather than being created just for the sake of it.
"He is quite used to travelling in his own area himself, that is something he understands a bit more maybe than a person who has grown up in a big city.
"He understands that it is there, he understands that we are working to improve it if required, but he also understands that it is part of the culture of the thing itself and it is what the players grew up with."
Recruiting a suitable backs coach to work alongside Penney and Foley is the next step but, for now, Munster are happy with where they are -- and with where they are heading.