Thursday 17 October 2019

'There were so many powerful influences behind the scenes' - Rob Penney reveals reasons behind Munster exit

Penney recalls the barriers that stopped him from guiding Munster to next level

Former Munster head coach Rob Penney, who was last week named as the new NSW Waratahs boss. Photo: Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images
Former Munster head coach Rob Penney, who was last week named as the new NSW Waratahs boss. Photo: Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Rob Penney is eating his dinner beneath the Kobe Misaki Stadium, but he's happy to chew the fat while devouring some fish and rice before going on air with RTÉ radio upstairs.

His memories of Ireland are fond, his achievement in leading a team in transition to successive European semi-finals and going as close to the final as any Munster coach since 2008 gets better by the year.

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The last time we saw him he was a frustrated man. His time in Munster had come to an end in Glasgow, at the end of a contentious PRO12 semi-final defeat that had come down to a dubious try.

It was a sorry way to end a two-year tenure that, in hindsight, smacks of right man, wrong time.

He's able to reflect on it now without bitterness as he explains how his mandate to change the organisation wasn't embraced by everyone.

Former players have since admitted that they didn't appreciate what he was trying to do, that the direction he was taking the team in was the right one. The sight of old dogs Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan trying to adapt to new tricks by standing out in the wide channels caused frustration amongst the locals and resistance from within.

"It was massively challenging, but I was up for it," he says.

"The unfortunate thing was we had some internal aspects that weren't engaged in it and that's where the resistance came from.

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"When you've got that resistance coming from within, the boys didn't know what to do.

"They were stuck between a rock and a hard place, they knew the direction we were going was the future and the boys that have finished playing now... you go talk to ROG and the boys on the other side, playing here tonight - they knew it was the right thing to do. Talk to Felix (Jones).

"There were just so many powerful influences behind the scenes and that's why I had to go. It was either me going or other people moving on and that wasn't going to happen, so..."

Soon, he will bring his time coaching Toyota in Japan to an end and take charge of the Waratahs in Sydney. There, he expects to find a willing environment. Between 2012 to 2014, things were different in Munster, where they're still trying to find a playing identity.

"Five years ago, crikey. Best of times, worst of times," Penney reflects. "I've still got some wonderful relationships back there. My wife and I love Ireland and we've been back.

"It's great that Munster now have the centre of excellence in Limerick, that's crucially important. I think by the time I got there, everyone was really tired of it. It was just really stretching the envelope.

"It was OK 10 years before, but it was gradually losing its effectiveness and it had got to a point where it was tough on everyone. It was great that they achieved that.

"They've had a horrific run of off-field issues, starting with the horror incident with Axel and moving on to Rassie (Erasmus) coming in and then leaving, just the non-consistency of staff... It has been tough for everyone to deal with, but the resilience of the players has been really good.

"They've been there or thereabouts without setting the world on fire."

Having turned down the offer of a one-year extension, the Penneys moved to Japan and again he's found the experience rewarding and frustrating at the same time.

For all the passion for the sport here, the format of the competition keeps changing and the route to international competition through the Sunwolves' participation in Super Rugby has been brought to an end, leaving a huge risk that the potential for growth is limited.

"There is a glass ceiling there of massive influence from universities, the older hierarchical system still exists heavily here and it's heavily ingrained in the rugby fraternity," he explains. "Getting decisions made, getting consistency of competition... I've been here five years and we've had five different formats.

"People love it, Japanese people love their sport and they deserve a really good competition."

His local knowledge of both teams leaves him well placed to assess Ireland's loss to the hosts.

"Knowing the calibre of the boys in that Japan group, it was no surprise at all," he says.

"There is a fair few foreigners in there, a lot of Kiwis, a lot of South Africans, Pacific Island boys. They've been here a long time, they're eligible for Japan but they know what it takes to win, how to dig deep.

"Ireland pulled their foot off the accelerator for a little bit, lost their confidence for some reason and all of a sudden there was a window.

"That's what happened. I couldn't have predicted the result, but you could see the tension going into the Irish boys once the pressure started to get exerted by Japan.

"It was a great victory, but I think Ireland will be a lot better for it.

"It's a better Japan team now than it was four years ago when they beat South Africa. You underestimate them at your peril.

"I'm sure Joe (Schmidt) didn't, they started well and got up to a reasonable enough lead. For some reason their foot went off the accelerator and things changed a bit. Without maturity - Joey Carbery's a great player with a big future, but without Johnny Sexton controlling things the way he can, they all of a sudden just imploded a little bit."

With the quarter-final picture now starting to take shape, Penney believes the contenders for the Webb Ellis Cup are New Zealand, England and South Africa.

Ireland, he feels, were rattled by their loss to England and have struggled since beating the All Blacks.

"The big boys again. All Blacks will be cruising, South Africa will be thereabouts... If the All Blacks played them again next week I think they'd just defend the same way and then open up those same spaces," he says.

"England, Eddie (Jones) is a very cagey, smart coach with a good group around him. The players are outstanding athletes, as we know.

"That England game against Ireland when they put that big score on them, I think that's part of the little bit of confidence dented in the Irish attack. They don't want to get into that hole again.

"All of a sudden there's a wee bit of trepidation when the pressure went on. Hopefully, they can take a step forward and get into that quarter-final game with a lot of confidence.

"Being the No 1 ranked team adds another bit of pressure and Shag (Steve Hansen) did a great job just dropping that into the mix every now and again from 12,000 miles away.

"You weigh it up, all those pressures do things. But hopefully they can find that confidence."

No resentment, no regrets. Five years on, the penny has probably dropped in Munster, but Penney has moved on.

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