Sunday 17 December 2017

Hurley sticks to Penney's blueprint

Munster's Denis Hurley takes on Craig Gilroy of Ulster during their Pro 12 clash
Munster's Denis Hurley takes on Craig Gilroy of Ulster during their Pro 12 clash

MUNSTER'S players have absolute belief in the gospel according to Rob Penney as he continues to preach the benefits of adopting the Canterbury style of play. That's the verdict of full-back Denis Hurley as the former Canterbury coach has Munster playing an expansive game where the emphasis is on getting the ball wide with every attack, adding breadth to their play. It's an ambitious plan, one that saw Penney lead the New Zealand side to four ITM Cup titles in a row.

But, one suspects, it might be a way of playing not best suited to the wet and heavy pitches of the winter months in Europe. That's the conundrum facing Munster: how do they properly integrate Penney's vision with the traditional game that continues to serve Munster and yield precious dividend?

Far from becoming disillusioned with the rate of progress, however, Hurley insists the squad remain enthused by Penney's zeal and are absolutely convinced they will see rewards sooner rather than later.

There is clearly merit in the argument that Munster are simply not suited to the game as promoted by Penney, that their obsession with going wide is simply affording teams the opportunity to erect walls against their predictable attacks.

On Saturday, for example, Simon Zebo had to come inside to find room to run while Doug Howlett's chances to stretch his legs were severely limited. In those players Munster are blessed with two intuitive counter-attacking strike runners. Are they getting the best out of them when their natural channels are being blocked by more cumbersome second-row forwards?

Hurley, though, expounds the belief – as does Penney – that when the players are fully accustomed to the game they will be able to create gaps for the likes of Howlett to exploit across the pitch, not just down the channels. It's all about being patient until that happens.

"At times we were getting it right and I think we are getting a lot better at being able to judge the times when we need to keep it tight in the forwards or let it out wide," said Hurley.

"We've shown that we can really cut teams apart with this game plan. I think at times we haven't fully executed it properly.

"We saw flashes of it in the second half against Ulster where we really did start to open up a strong defence and we picked off a couple of scores from it. A lot of it is about stretching defences and putting them under as much pressure as possible and letting them make mistakes that will open up holes for us to exploit."

There is a fear that Munster are running out of time to make things work. They play Cardiff in Cork this weekend and after that it's their two must-win Heineken Cup games against Edinburgh and Racing Metro.

Hurley readily acknowledges that Munster need to build some momentum going into the European weekends. "Saturday against Cardiff is going to be all about making sure that we get our game plan together and put in a good performance.

"The last couple of games we haven't gone the full 80 in terms of putting teams under pressure and getting points out of them and I think that our main focus will be on that for next weekend."

Since breaking into the starting team during the successful Heineken Cup run in 2008, Hurley has been in and out of the side. He won his 100th cap against Ulster on Saturday and is hopeful of adding to that number over the coming weeks. "I know I have to be on top of my game to be able to hold my spot," he said.

Munster will need to win both games in the Heineken Cup and pick up at least one bonus point if they are to progress to the knockout stage of the competition. Given their inconsistency this season, that's far from a given, as Hurley is aware.

"We haven't been as consistent as we have been over the last number of seasons, but we're in a good position now. We're in the top four in the Rabo and we know where we stand in the Heineken Cup.

"We have the quality to get the performances needed. We won't get caught up chasing bonus points. We need to win the games first and be patient.

"But first we need to put in a good shift against Cardiff at the weekend. We need to build some momentum and put ourselves in a strong position for the tests ahead."

Irish Independent

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