Penney beefs up blueprint to thrilling effect
Munster 34 Edinburgh 23
Rob Penney wasn't wrong when he described Saturday's fare at Musgrave Park as "a spectacle" and "enjoyable to watch".
It's far too early in the season to make any sweeping statements about Munster's form. There were a lot of smiling faces last year when they won their opening two games and lost by only a point to Ulster in Ravenhill.
Those games also boasted a high percentage of snazzy off-loading, ridiculously quick hands and penetrating runs. Munster flung the ball around like never before, the crowd showed their approval and it all looked ever so exciting down south. It wasn't long before cracks in the foundations of the Penney blueprint emerged and Munster's form – and results – fluctuated wildly.
Munster's revamped off-loading game and determination to get the ball wide looked great, but there was very little substance to it.
They were going lateral, and opposition teams soon realised they posed minimal danger and simply shadowed them into touch.
It became tedious and threatened to derail Munster's season. It did ruin their Celtic League ambitions and only a drastic shift back to the traditional game the players were more au fait with rescued their Heineken Cup in the quarter-final against Harlequins.
The performance on Saturday was a huge leap forward in terms of the players' ability to properly assess what's in front of them and then choose how to play the ball.
There are still some frailties in their game. They walked Edinburgh from one end to the other for the concession of at least nine points, their defence creaked badly for the Scots' two tries and there were a couple of issues with their scrum.
They also aimlessly went from left to right on occasion but, crucially, they never ran the ball into touch and before too long someone invariably took control and changed things up. Whether that was a chip forward – Johne Murphy's sumptuous kick-though for James Coughlan's try – or by taking the ball into contact didn't really matter.
The important element was that Munster showed a willingness and ability to mix things up. The biggest accusation last season was that there was no element of surprise to their play, which made them far too predictable.
Edinburgh simply didn't know how to defend against them on Saturday night because they had absolutely no idea what Munster were going to throw at them.
Saturday's performance and result must be tempered by the acknowledgment that Edinburgh were appalling, but if they can sustain and build on the progress made it was a very positive step in Munster's evolution.
"I was rapped with the intent, and large components of the execution and decision-making were excellent," said Penney.
"If they make good decisions then often skill, execution and outcomes are very positive. That's what we've been working very hard on for some time, we'll keep working – players are adjusting."
The build-up to Munster's first and second tries, in particular, highlighted just how far they have progressed.
Edinburgh couldn't keep up with the speed of their off-loading and were ultimately powerless to keep Denis Hurley out when he went over in the corner on 13 minutes after the ball was flashed out wide at speed.
Two minutes later the change in tactic worked when Murphy – who was outstanding – kicked through and caught the Edinburgh defence totally off guard. The ball bounced between Ronan O'Mahony's legs and Coughlan benefited by being in the right place at the right time.
Those two touchdowns underscored just how much more comfortable Munster are with their evolving game and the final result was beyond doubt 15 minutes in.
It was not a performance without issue, though. The defence, for example, will not be comfortable during this morning's video review of Nick de Luca's try when he stepped inside Coughlan and was able to dart through the gap to bring his side to within nine points with just over 20 minutes left.
Neither will anyone be happy with the missed tackles that led to Lee Jones' 72nd-minute try.
By then Ivan Dineen and JJ Hanrahan had added to the three first-half tries to secure the win and the bonus point – with a try to spare – but that Edinburgh were within a try of securing a losing bonus point themselves was astounding, as Munster were vastly the better side.
It gives Penney and the players plenty to work on during their 10-day camp in Italy – they leave on Thursday and play Zebre and Treviso on successive weekends – but they will also be able to reflect on some significant progress made.
One of the real positives for them will be the performance of their front-row – debut loosehead prop James Cronin was one of the standout performers. He was both solid and dynamic in the set-piece and effective in the loose.
"James is terrific. He's a special one. Not only is he a gifted prop, he's a gifted rugby player. He's got a good future ahead of him," Penney added.
Munster – D Hurley; R O'Mahony, C Laulala, I Dineen (C Bohane71), J Murphy; I Keatley (JJ Hanrahan 64), D Williams (C Sheridan 55), J Cronin (D Kilcoyne 61), M Sherry (D Varley 61), S Archer (J Ryan 61); D Foley, Donncha O'Callaghan (B Holland 55); Dave O'Callaghan (T O'Donnell 55), S Dougall, J Coughlan.
Edinburgh – G Tonks; G Fife, N de Luca, B Atiga (J Cuthbert 46), L Jones; P Francis (H Leonard 59), S Kennedy (S Hidalgo-Clyne 72); A Dickinson (G Cross 6), R Ford, W Nel; G Gilchrist, I van der Westhuizen (H Watson 72); G Cox, R Grant, D Denton.
Ref – M Mitrea (FIR)