Tuesday 20 February 2018

Penney's rebuilding task will not involve hard labour

It's been a good week for Ireland's four provinces, writes Jim Glennon

No sooner had the siege of Bordeaux been lifted than thoughts had turned to Twickenham. An initial foray into the airline websites had produced a best-available €647 same-day return (Dublin -- Heathrow) on May 19.

The nature of professional sport too is that nothing deflects or distracts from the overall objective, in this case winning the Heineken Cup. Ulster and Leinster will have dwelled only briefly on their achievement in reaching the final before their professionalism kicked in and next business had to be dealt with. Ironically, for a large number of them it was an Ireland squad get-together the following morning; for the remainder it was back to the daily grind, a lighter burden undoubtedly after the weekend's events.

Leinster wasted no time either in capitalising on the feelgood factor by announcing the renewal of contracts for no fewer than 18 squad members. Interestingly, Luke Fitzgerald wasn't among them while Isa Nacewa was. Ulster, as has been their way, simply went back to work. Life goes on, regardless.

As it does for Connacht and Munster too. The westerners were big winners last week, getting back into the Heineken Cup next season. Having dramatically turned around their season from the depths of a seemingly interminable mid-winter losing run with an unlikely victory over Harlequins in their first foray into the Heineken Cup, they've moved on to one of their best ever seasons. Having entertained the likes of Toulouse, Gloucester and Harlequins, they'll relish the prospect of bringing their new-found and hard-earned European experience to bear against whatever opposition the draw throws up.

They should enjoy it while they can though, as it's difficult to imagine the tolerance of the hard-nosed realists of the multi-million euro commercial enterprises of the French Championnat and the English Premiership stretching much further. However enjoyable an all-Irish final may be, there'll be a political price to pay at some stage, and possibly a big one too.

For the second successive season Ireland will have four teams competing next year, while the French will have six (seven if Biarritz beat Toulon in the Challenge Cup final) -- all of Ireland's professional franchises, and less than half of France's Top 14. The French have misgivings around the apparent ease with which Ireland maintain a constant presence in the tournament's knockout stages, and the exploits this season of Michael Bradley's Edinburgh, coming from a similar structure, will add further grist to their mill.

Connacht's presence in the competition should be an advantage in negotiating with recruits for the season ahead. Their historic difficulties in this regard are well-documented, and their most recent signings -- outhalf Dan Parks, currently with Cardiff, and flanker Willie Faloon of Ulster -- are somewhat underwhelming, to say the least.

Munster, on the other hand, are a marquee brand in the game, with a capacity for attracting high-profile players, and, as we saw last week, top-quality coaches too. The signing of New Zealander Rob Penney on a two-year contract as successor to Tony McGahan, in preference to Anthony Foley, is a bold step indeed.

It's to be hoped at least that he'll be given time to acclimatise to his new surroundings. Remember, if some critics had their way, Joe Schmidt would have been despatched back to Clermont less than ten weeks into his contract. This is not to be in any way flippant. Penney's biggest challenge will be to develop personal relationships with the key personalities involved, and time is of the essence in this regard, particularly as his arrival in the province will be slightly delayed.

Penney's task is indeed an interesting one. There's not a whole lot that needs fixing. It shouldn't be forgotten that, despite an injury-ravaged panel, Munster won all six of their pool games in Europe this season. The catalogue of injuries, and an emerging Ulster team, finally caught up with them in the quarter-final, but it's not in any way stretching the imagination to say they were probably no more than an injury away from a place in the Twickenham final.

Some of those injuries have, regrettably, led to retirements. Others, and I'm thinking specifically of Doug Howlett, are fortunately less permanent and the former All Black will have a major role to play, especially with his compatriot as coach. One of the consequences of the injuries was that Tony McGahan had to do more heavy lifting in the rebuilding process than he would have liked, but Penney stands to reap the rewards of his predecessor's efforts in this regard.

So while the focus, inevitably, will fall on Leinster and Ulster over the coming weeks, there'll be a lot of important activity in the relative shadows of the other provinces too.


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