Saturday 14 December 2019

Ward: Penney era – good for the forwards, but backs are still going backwards

Departing Reds boss brought on a new generation but old failings resurfaced in Glasgow loss

James Coughlan, right, and Conor Murray, Munster, react to their defeat to Glasgow Warriors
James Coughlan, right, and Conor Murray, Munster, react to their defeat to Glasgow Warriors
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

I am not suggesting that the national coach would ever want his provincial teams to lose, but Munster's defeat to Glasgow has certainly not done Joe Schmidt any harm ahead of the trip to Argentina.

With Connacht not involved and Leinster meeting Ulster in one of the Pro12 semi-finals, two of our four provinces were guaranteed a good rest ahead of the flight to Buenos Aires anyway.

Of course I would have preferred an all-Irish decider, but alas, it is not to be, and quite frankly, Leinster at home to Glasgow on the last day is the most fitting finale.

Munster could have won in Scotstoun, but the fact they did not has little to do with inadequate technology and everything to do with inadequate attacking ability – even if Munster folk might not like hearing it.

What Rob Penney tried to do in moving to a wider attacking brief when he took over was admirable in theory but not in practice.

Whether it was the more experienced troops rebelling from within, or the head coach having a 'Damascus moment' – reality dawned and collectively, the traditional way became the only way in order to stay the pace and remain involved until the business end of the season.

In theory the combination of a door-breaker (James Downey) and a lock-picker (Casey Laulala) should offer the variation essential to a modern-day midfield.


However, it hasn't come remotely close as the Munster backline as an attacking unit (almost a misnomer in itself) has been a mishmash of nothingness with headless east-west running the defining aspect all season.

The lack of an orthodox attacking full-back has added significantly to the confusion. My views on the misuse of Felix Jones – and on him not helping himself – are well established at this stage.

There is also the growing problem of two out-halves, neither in complete control of the position, as another disjointed, unfulfilled season ends.

I do not accept that this Munster team is a victim of the province's success from times past.

I just feel there are obvious issues in need of obvious address, and nothing has been done over the course of another frustrating season to do just that.

Instead, what we got in Glasgow was a team in desperation with more than adequate possession but not a clue what to do with it. The need for a perceptive backs coach has never been greater. And I'll try not to mention Eddie.

In Conor Murray, Simon Zebo, Keith Earls and Andrew Conway, the new, as yet unnamed assistant coach has four very definite pieces to a meaningful attacking jigsaw.

There are replacement southern hemisphere troops on the way, but the spine of the backline, as in a dominant out-half (a la Ronan O'Gara), two differing but complementary centres and a full-back operating as a full-back represent the key pieces to be filled.

Despite Penney's pass-the-buck rant, the TMO was not responsible for Munster losing on Saturday, but attacking inadequacy and a fundamental impotency, specifically from 10 to 15, were.

Of course there should have been more cameras and, by extension, better camera angles available but there wasn't ... .for either side.

Zebo's attempted touchdown might have been given but equally Damien Varley's might not. These things tend to even themselves out over the course of the season and certainly on the evidence available, the TMO on duty in Glasgow got it right.

Quite how finishing third in the table and losing the semi-final gets you Rabo Direct Coach of the Year is beyond me. That said, I do think Penney has been good for Munster in terms of bringing a new generation of forwards into the mix.

The development of Dave Foley (a serious prospect), Dave Kilcoyne, James Cronin, Sean Dougall, CJ Stander and Duncan Casey has been marked, while Varley (still hugely under-rated), James Coughlan and Peter O'Mahony have prospered under the Kiwi.

Is Munster in a better place than when Penney arrived? Up front, yes but beyond the ever improving Murray, most definitely not.

With Donnacha Ryan, O'Mahony and Mike Sherry set to return and Robin Copeland soon to arrive there is some forward material for Anthony Foley to mould. Munster should, have a pack and replacements to compete with the very best in Europe.

The challenge is in getting the right technician and the right combination playing the most prudent attacking game.

The appointment of a new backline coach as assistant to Foley is massive, and unless John Kelly and his professional games committee know who they want, then I suggest the position should be left open until the right man comes available.

Oh, and just for the record, despite the petty bickering, the better team won in Glasgow.

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