Wednesday 13 December 2017

Munster have no regrets over Penney's exit

Kiwi tight-lipped on Foley's job credentials as CEO Fitzgerald claims 'top names' in running

Rob Penny will no longer be coach of Munster at the end of the season
Rob Penny will no longer be coach of Munster at the end of the season

Ruiadhri O'Connor

IN some ways, we left Limerick none the wiser as to why Rob Penney will no longer be coach of Munster next season, but a little reading between the lines goes a long way.

After Thursday's shock statement that the New Zealander would leave the province at the end of the season to take up a new opportunity, for "family reasons", the province invited the media to their snowy UL base yesterday for a de-brief to clear up some of the reasons behind the decision.

However, with the man himself issuing a diktat that he didn't want to talk about anything remotely to do with contracts, and even refusing to answer the question of whether his forwards coach Anthony Foley is ready for a head coaching job, it was left to chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald to explain the rest.

What we know is that Penney will leave at the end of the season and reports in New Zealand indicate that he will become head coach at Japanese club NTT Shining Arcs next season, on a three-year deal which brings him closer to home.

According to Fitzgerald, Penney and Munster had agreed in principle to take up the option of a one-year extension on the same terms, but the Kiwi was keeping his options open and, when the long-term security of the move to the big money league in Japan came up, he took the chance.

He went back to Fitzgerald with news of his offer and the province did not consider matching it or increasing the deal on the table by another year.

"I think Rob had his decision made at that stage," the chief executive said.

When pushed on whether a two-year deal might have been enough to keep him here, Fitzgerald replied: "Would he have liked a two-year (contract) and would he have stayed? He possibly would."


However, with Penney refusing to discuss it, we may never know exactly what would or wouldn't have persuaded him to stay.

Much has been made of the part assistant coach Simon Mannix's role in the future set-up played in the whole discussions, but Fitzgerald insisted yesterday that the former All Black and the rest of the backroom team were not due to be offered new deals until after Penney and manager Niall O'Donovan had agreed to their one-year extensions.

Former Ireland forwards coach O'Donovan has committed to another year, although that may now be reviewed with a view to a further season with the arrival of a new coach now imminent, but Mannix will leave at the end of the season, while Foley and Ian Costello's deals are up at the end of the campaign.

The search for a replacement has begun and Fitzgerald wants it tied up within four weeks, but he admits it was not something he was expecting to do for another 12 months.

And, he has no regrets about how he and Munster handled he process.

"It was part of our long-term plan that we would have Rob for a three-year cycle," he said. "We felt we needed to get that cycle in the change with players and the young players coming through the squad. I'm happy that we did everything right and professionally. I don't have any regrets on that situation.

"This is a business. You have to deal with things professionally. We've lost a player this year, Casey Laulala, who we had made an offer to and wanted to stay but economics comes into it and the business side of things come into it.

"We're sorry to be losing Casey but we'd be the first to wish him the best of luck and we hope it goes well for him and his family. And I'd be doing the same for Rob."

Foley leads the bookies' lists of contenders for the job but Fitzgerald said that, as soon as the news broke, the applications began arriving in his email inbox.

The IRFU will run the process of replacing Penney, but members of Munster's Professional Game Committee will have a heavy involvement.

Along with Fitzgerald, former player John Kelly, ex-Shannon star Andrew Thompson, former presidents of the branch Denis Kelleher and John Hartery, who is also director of finance and operations at accountancy firm BDO, make up that committee.

While there is pressure to appoint an indigenous coach, with the national hot seat and four provincial head coaching roles being currently held by men from New Zealand and Australia, the chief executive said that Munster would be picking the best man for the job.

"The pressure (is knowing) what is the right thing to do, to make it an assessment of the person that's available, that's going to do the best job with the group of players that you have," said Fitzgerald.

"Sometimes you get a nine out of 10, sometimes you get seven out of 10 and at some day you win a competition and get 10 out of 10. But you might have appointed the wrong person and still got 10 out of 10 from the media.

"You have to get the best person for the job and if we didn't appoint the best person for the job we'd get criticised for it as well."

So, what are Munster looking for in a head coach?

"You are looking for a person who has the experience, who has the knowledge of the game, who understands the players, who understands the psychology of the players, how he gets the players to perform to the maximum of their ability, who understands the opposition, who understands the competition you play in and at the end of the day you will win as many matches as possible and ultimately if you can you end up winning trophies.

"For some reason or another Munster seems to be a place fellas want to come to, to coach. Every top coach in the world, or most of them, put their name forward at different times to look for positions, and some of the ones on my desk at the moment would reflect that."

Foley made it to the shortlist of three for the job, along with Penney and Tana Umaga, last time out and Fitzgerald acknowledged that he would be a leading contender again.

"The last time, when we had the 'worldwide search', Anthony was in the last three for interviews and did very well at the time," he said. "He's worked exceptionally well with other coaches here, with Tony (McGahan) and with Rob and he's worked at national level and gotten much more experience. He's getting wiser all the time.

"Anthony will get the head coach position, whether it is here or whether he has offers elsewhere and that's something you have to take into account."

Coming into the start of the Super Rugby season this weekend, the market is not particularly strong according to the chief executive. "The amount of quality coaches that are available at any one time is minimal," he said. "There are always only a small number of people with suitable experience available."

Fitzgerald scotched rumours that the province could adopt a 'director of rugby' model with the likes of former Ireland head coaches Declan Kidney or Eddie O'Sullivan being linked with a role in a revamped system.

As for Penney, he may not be willing to talk about contracts, but he wants to go out on a high. "Whether I am here for 10 minutes or two hours I'll give it 100pc, we'll give 100pc," he said. "So nothing has changed. I always try to do my best and ensure this place is a little better, potentially, when I leave than when I started. Whether it is or not, other people will judge that."

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