Monday 18 December 2017

Foley perfectly placed to fix failings of Penney reign

Incoming Munster boss has had bird's eye view of recent implosion

James Downey, showing his disappointment after the Pro12 semi-final defeat to Glasgow Warriors, is leaving Munster
James Downey, showing his disappointment after the Pro12 semi-final defeat to Glasgow Warriors, is leaving Munster
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

In the three months since Anthony Foley was confirmed as the province's chosen one, there has been something of a two-track operation at Munster.

The former No 8 has been party to both, preparing the team alongside the man he will replace in the coming weeks while, behind the scenes, he plots for next season.

Keeping a low public profile, Foley has been busy on the recruitment front, adding a pair of southern hemisphere centres, while he is expected to confirm a backroom staff, to include Jerry Flannery and Brian Walsh, early this week.

All the while, the Rob Penney era has been grinding to an unsatisfactory halt.

From that heady day when Toulouse were dismantled at Thomond Park, the province's season has crumbled, and ended in Glasgow on Friday night, when they couldn't quite get over the line against a hugely committed Warriors side.


The high of early April has faded into distant memory and even a doughty display in Scotland on Friday couldn't erase the poor performances of the last six weeks.

A crestfallen Penney's final grievance was about a shortage of camera angles, but the inconsistencies of his two-year tenure were on full display in Scotstoun where Munster, too late, discovered James Downey in a way they had ignored throughout his two-year stint to great effect on his final outing in red.

Their scrum and line-out were impeccable, even if the inconsistent referee didn't agree with BJ Botha all the time, while they defended brilliantly against the waves of attack.

When they went direct, they profited, with two tries and Simon Zebo's close call all coming from Downey going up the middle.

In the closing stages, however, all of the worst parts of the Simon Mannix-coached back play came to the fore as they went from coast to coast without ever threatening.

There were other problems. A week on from their dreadful performance against Ulster, there were times when Conor Murray and Ian Keatley looked like they needed to be introduced to one another, while the errors mounted up either side of half-time to allow Glasgow to score 13 of their 16 points in a 12-minute period.

All of the problems are rectifiable, even if Penney is still scratching his head at the 'unique' problem of Munster's inconsistency.

Having gone through an almost complete overhaul in the time of Tony McGahan and the New Zealander, this 'new' Munster that the players frequently talk about are desperate to take their place among the greats.

Foley was part of the first great transition from nowhere men to nearly men and ultimately to delivery men, but now he must continue the improvements made this season before it fell asunder.

"We need to constantly improve. In sport you fail a lot more than you win and that's what makes the winning sweeter and we haven't achieved that," stand-in captain Damien Varley said.

"Most of this group, the last thing we won was the Magners League a few years ago (2011) and a lot of the group weren't there for it, so we need to grasp it and we need to understand the failures and analyse the little things so that we can improve and bring Munster back to where it should be.

"We certainly have progressed in certain areas but we haven't tasted the victories we wanted. We lost two Heineken Cup semi-finals and it's a gut-wrenching loss in the semi-final.

"There are certainly areas of progression but I think the biggest thing that we need to go forward is to learn how to win these games, how to withstand pressure and how to apply even more pressure.

"You know, it all kind of kicked off for us in Glasgow in October when we started to dig out games even though they weren't pretty. We were able to win and I think we need to progress that even further."

Foley is well aware of the expectation that comes with his dream job. Penney guided his team to two Heineken Cup semi-finals and improved Munster's consistency, but that wasn't deemed good enough for any more than a one-year extension.

While they have introduced a new generation of players such as Murray, Peter O'Mahony and Dave Kilcoyne to take things forward, Paul O'Connell remains the key driver in the dressing-room and he will be 35 by the time the Rugby Champions Cup gets going.

Penney may leave with opinions divided on his tenure, but he leaves a high benchmark for success and the players and fans will demand progress next season.

It is a daunting task for Foley, who can devote all of his time to the job now. It's what he wanted, though, and he'll throw himself into it.

He has had a bird's eye view of the failings; from September it will be his time to rectify them.

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