Tuesday 21 November 2017

Penney hails young guns as grand plan takes shape

Coach insists faith in 'kids' has helped Red Army kick on after legends' exits

Simon Zebo in action during Munster’s training session in Limerick yesterday
Simon Zebo in action during Munster’s training session in Limerick yesterday
Munster head coach Rob Penney
David Kelly

David Kelly

"I See you're after giving them all new contracts in the paper this morning!"

The gentle jibe from Munster chief executive Garret FitzGerald is just that: mildly probing.

Top of the Pro12, odds-on for Heineken Cup quarter-final participation yet again; it's clear to see there ain't too much broken down this way.

Hence, there are contracts on the table for the coaching staff to collectively extend their exponential improvement of this squad into a third season.

All has been dotted and crossed but, with two banana skins to be avoided before European qualification is secured, the brains trust will not be allowed to ink their new deals just yet.

As ever in Munster, everything has to be earned.

Strange to think that it all may have turned on a moment of individual genius and collective brio in Perpignan without which, perhaps, Munster's European hopes may not have appeared so rosy.

Nor, indeed, the future of the coaching ticket.

Then again, Penney appreciates that, as the tradition has it in these parts, he only has the job until someone else takes it from him.

"It is not my product really," he said modestly, when asked to assess, mid-term, the value of his oft-stated three-year plan.

"There has been some growth in good areas and some younger people exposed. The coaching staff are doing a fantastic job and the medical team, look, they are all working in a way that is giving the organisation a bit of synergy and a positive outlook for the medium to long-term future.

"If you had said what is the organisation going to do after all those senior players retired and coaches left, then losing Dougie Howlett and Ronan O'Gara last year, it was all 'where to now?'.

"But nobody has even mentioned their names. So the kids have come in and we have the people working behind the scenes to get them their experience.

"And the guys who have taken over those big shoes are creating their own path now, which is pleasing."

While results dictate employment prospects, particularly within a European heavyweight such as Munster, Penney also alludes to the developmental responsibility that has, partially through injury and retirement, been forced upon him.

TRANSITION

It was a path initiated by his predecessor Tony McGahan -- who narrowly failed to skate the line between deploying transition and maintaining success.

Penney is getting there -- slowly.

"It is more important to develop players, that is where I get my real pleasure," he said, perhaps with the alacrity of one who knows that the short-term heat is off and a new deal is on the way.

"To see a young guy get his opportunity and succeed and then getting kudos from people like yourself because they are doing the job well, that is all they want to do.

"They want to be respected in rugby. It is a great joy to see those sorts of people coming through."

Peter O'Mahony is not normally adept at employing a song and dance routine at these gigs, so it was perhaps understandable that his commendation of the coaching staff was similarly reserved.

"Ah look, at the end of the day, it isn't up to me whether contracts are given out or not but I've enjoyed my rugby under Rob in the last 18 months and I think we are building to nice places," O'Mahony said.

"It has been tough at times but there has been progress, as you can see from the results -- we have been going the right direction in the Pro12.

"Some of the performances that we have put in at times over the last few weeks have been impressive, so I think we are going in the right direction. We have worked very well together. I've enjoyed the last few years."

In terms of ringing endorsements, that translates in Munster captain-speak as hearty in the extreme; they are rarely guilty of excessive flattery in these parts.

For now, the timing and minutiae of contracts are a sideshow compared to Penney's commitment to maintain the upward graph on the field, from where all rewards are derived.

To that end, the recent setback in Ravenhill left all and sundry appropriately wounded.

Munster rarely undergo such a heavy midweek session as they did yesterday; a round of extensive meetings unveiled and unpicked a series of deficits, from scrum defence to set-piece and attacking play.

"We've got a long way to go performance-wise," admitted Penney. "We're getting some outcomes, which is great credit to the lads, because they're working very hard and deserve to get some reward at the end of the week because they are working well.

"Whether we're copping too much criticism or not, I don't really know. That's for other people to decide, I just get along and try to do my best for this group and try to get the best out of them."

This week Penney may again be defined by a significant selection call, with Currow man JJ Hanrahan widely tipped to start his first Heineken Cup game. Penney views it as a defining philosophy.

"Absolutely," he said. "My view on young guys or guys who show promise is that often they just need the opportunity to kick on.

"When I think back on my coaching career, there's very few times I've ever been let down by giving someone an opportunity."

It will be a philosophy sufficiently robust enough to allow him to remain on to complete his three-year plan for Munster.

Irish Independent

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