Sunday 17 December 2017

Timely end to Penney's reign

New regime must pick up pieces as arduous year fails to satisfy Red Army fans, writes Jim Glennon

Glasgow Warriors head coach Gregor Townsend
Glasgow Warriors head coach Gregor Townsend

Jim Glennon

MAY without an Irish team in the Heineken Cup final feels like an anti-climax. There's always the Pro12 as a worthwhile consolation prize, but even that slipped away from Munster on Friday night.

Glasgow Warriors in Scotstoun may not be the most glamorous of fixtures but then glamour has rarely featured high on any Glaswegian agenda. Under Gregor Townsend, however, their franchise has developed consistently in strength and quality – strong up front and with serious pace behind the scrum.

They went into Friday's game, their third successive semi-final in this competition, on the back of eight successive league wins, during which they had scored 232 points while conceding a mere 89. Tellingly, only four of the 11 Pro12 teams had managed to score tries in Scotstoun this season.

Their level of confidence was evidenced not only by the near 11,000 sell-out crowd, but also by the coach's decision to omit two of their highest-profile backs – Stuart Hogg from the matchday squad and Niko Matawalu from the starting 15.

Another growing reputation has been that of 21-year-old outhalf Finn Russell. Filling the pivotal position at international level has been a major problem for Scotland with neither Duncan Weir nor Ruairidh Jackson capable of establishing themselves, and all eyes are now on the youngster since he leapfrogged both internationals at the Warriors.

He may be a long way from the finished article, but he does appear to have at least some of the requisite raw materials to progress, particularly as Townsend was one of Scotland's great outhalves. It should be remembered too that last year the Scots posed major problems for Joe Schmidt's Leinster in their semi-final at the RDS. They lost out by the narrowest of margins but their performance served to alert many to the quality of the unit being assembled.

Glasgow's elimination from the Heineken Cup at the pool stage was advantageous in the context of their Pro12 ambitions and since the return of their international squad members from Six Nations duty, the league has been the sole focus of the group.

The momentum from their successful push to the competition's knockout stages stood in stark contrast to Munster's inconsistency since their Heineken Cup exit – an overwhelming victory away to an abysmal Edinburgh, and a quite underwhelming home defeat to a second-string Ulster.

It has been an unusual season, indeed an unusual couple of seasons, for Munster. Successive Heineken Cup semi-finals haven't been enough to convince their followers, and ultimately their power brokers, as to the direction the squad has taken under Rob Penney. After their exit from Europe, it was hoped that the Penney era would end in league triumph at least; a backlash was badly needed on Friday but the one that materialised just wasn't enough.

Whether the reaction was coach-inspired or player-driven is difficult to know but the absence of Peter O'Mahony was again a major factor. Paul O'Connell and replacement skipper Damien Varley led valiantly in attempting to drag the Munster players towards the final, but theirs were lonely struggles. The forward unit fell well short of their heroic heights of Marseille.

The Munster backs again failed to produce the spark required to ask serious questions of the Warriors defence. Conor Murray at scrumhalf finished off his fine season well, Keith Earls was a welcome significant contributor and James Downey was his dependable self, but the division's overall quality of play, and their direction by Simon Mannix, again left itself open to criticism.

With Brian Walsh spoken of as likely backs coach next season, there will be hope that a new regime will bring more cohesion to the unit's attacking capability and might also improve on Friday's tally of three homegrown starters.

Glasgow retain a grittiness which makes them difficult to play against, particularly in Scotstoun. This win, the manner of its achievement and the identity of the opponent, confirms their arrival as a rising force.

Glasgow's importance to Scottish rugby is immense and, were they to go the whole way next weekend and win Scotland's first major competition of the professional era, their success would represent a huge boost for the Pro12 league, the beleaguered Celtic/Italian alliance, and the game in Scotland alike.

For Munster, the Penney/Mannix era is at an end and, for many, its conclusion is timely. Anthony Foley takes over and, with the prospect of an all-Munster coaching ticket, there are fascinating times ahead.

Sunday Indo Sport

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