Saturday 24 March 2018

Consistency brings no security for Munster boss Penney

Despite good results so far this season, Rob Penney's Munster future is not resolved,

17 December 2013; Munster head coach Rob Penney during squad training ahead of their Celtic League 2013/14, Round 10, game against the Scarlets on Saturday. Munster Rugby Squad Training, University of Limerick, Limerick. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
17 December 2013; Munster head coach Rob Penney during squad training ahead of their Celtic League 2013/14, Round 10, game against the Scarlets on Saturday. Munster Rugby Squad Training, University of Limerick, Limerick. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
Munster head coach Ron Penney
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Rob Penney's final assignment before taking up the Munster job in the summer of 2012 was to lead the Baby Blacks, as New Zealand's under 20 side are known, in pursuit of the Junior World Championship in South Africa.

By the time he arrived in Cork, Munster fans were less concerned about how his team had come up short in the final against the hosts, and more interested in what he made of the Ireland players who had managed to do what New Zealand didn't, ie beat South Africa, whose scalp Ireland took in the pool stages.

Better still for Munster supporters, the man who Penney name-checked first was one of their own: JJ Hanrahan. The UL Bohs outhalf had an excellent championship, making it onto the shortlist of three for player of the tournament. Munster's incoming coach was quick to add his compliments.

At the time you wondered what role Hanrahan might play in Ronan O'Gara's last lap. Would he be hurrying the veteran off the track or would Ian Keatley be unthreatened in that role, with Hanrahan clearly studying the understudy?

That flashback popped up twice this season, and both times in the Heineken Cup. First there was the endgame in Edinburgh in round one in October, when Hanrahan came on and added a giveaway to go with the other bargains Munster had handed their hosts that day. He was still on the ground looking like a mugged tourist as Tim Visser was racing away to score the clinching try.

Then came that final play in Perpignan last weekend. This time the replacement outhalf was picking his way down the touchline to save the day with the clock in overtime. It was joy unconfined, and by the time Rob Penney's beaming face was filling the screen for the post-match interview, you were calculating the value to the coach of Hanrahan's sidestep and sprint to the corner.

It may seem remarkable that there is so much uncertainty over Penney's future in red. Munster haven't managed such consistency across both competitions since 2008/09 when they were nine wins and three losses (including the game against the All Blacks) at this point back then, against 9-2 coming into this weekend.

In the Heineken Cup they currently enjoy the most comfortable lead of any club, with four of the six lengths of the pool completed. At the start of this year in the same competition they did well to get out of their group, far better still to beat Harlequins away in the quarters, and then stunned pretty much everybody by running Clermont down to the wire in Montpellier.

And here we are, halfway through a so-far-so-good season and there might be as many people who reckon Penney will not be retained in the job as think he will hang on. When you factor in that he arrived to take over a group who had lost most of their big hitters, this doesn't seem right. At the time we reckoned his timing was actually ideal, that supporters would read the writing on the wall and understand that, whatever it spelt, the words quick and fix weren't there.

It's hard to know how they would have reacted if he hadn't taken the engine apart in the first week and road-tested the new version on day one of the new season. That it kept aiming for the crash barriers on either side of the field alarmed many people.

Penney's view was that the machine hadn't been working when he arrived so he was left with no choice but to overhaul it. This made sense. It also suited him because it was what he believed in -- it was the Canterbury way, and coaches from that part of the world like to bring their belongings with them rather than buy new stuff when they land.

It might have helped if there was an instruction kit with the new game plan for it was comical how in some media quarters Penney was love-bombed before a ball had been kicked in anger. It made for some awkward revisionism when the plan stalled, and rumours spread of unrest among the coaching staff.

There have been two go-to rugby images for tv directors in the last couple of seasons: the first would be a shot of Ronan O'Gara on the bench when Johnny Sexton or Paddy Jackson had just missed a kick for Ireland; and the second was to cut to the Munster coaching box when things were ropey on the field and the body language between Anthony Foley, and the Kiwis Penney and Simon Mannix looked uncomfortable.

A senior source in Munster described the relations last season as 'barely functional'. Even allowing for the fact that Foley's demeanour wouldn't get him the gig as a redcoat in Butlin's, the clear understanding was that he felt frozen out by the Kiwi axis based in Cork, with him in Limerick. Penney maintained that constant communication would overcome any geographical issues.

Whatever about Foley though, Simon Mannix has struggled to win over the backs' contingent. Some of the private assessments of his methods have been scathing. You get this type of thing typically from the disenchanted, those on the outside, but that was not the case here.

We are now in the middle of the 'make your mind up time' season and ideally these contracts should be put to bed by the time Munster conclude their pool programme, in four weeks. By then Penney will surely have delivered back-to-back qualifications, and he will have an offer on the table.

If it's for a one-year extension then it will be clear Munster are on the lookout again. And if it includes Mannix then it will be a surprise. There will be pressure to 'Irishise' the operation by promoting Ian Costello to Mannix's role, and to give Foley more responsibility. It will be interesting to see how Penney reacts to that pressure, for Mannix is his man and either he digs his heels in or he cuts Mannix loose.

The long-odds option is that Munster don't make Penney an offer at all. If they go down that road then they must already have lined up somebody who is better than him, and ready to get started next summer, which is why it's long odds.

One suggestion of the 'dream team' is to fish Declan Kidney out of UCC and make him director of rugby, with Foley and Costello coaching the side. That might not be everybody's prelude to waking up with a smile on your face.

Another is that there is a longer game, which is to keep things ticking over until John Kelly, a stalwart from the breakthrough days of 2006, has assumed the mantle as Munster CEO, with Paul O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara following along as the coaches of the next generation. It will be a while before that vision comes into view, and luckily for the two would-be coaches, they'll be dealing with a squad coming into its prime. That Penney is coping with a group a long way from that happy state reflects well on him.

He needed some luck in France last weekend, having been hard done by earlier in the game, and coincidentally it was delivered by Hanrahan, the first Munster player to catch his eye. In that management-speak the coach is so fond of, it was "a positive outcome".

Irish Independent

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