Penney ready to make tough calls
THERE is something strange about asking a coach sitting top of the Pro12 and his Heineken Cup pool about his future at the turn of the year, but such is the situation Rob Penney finds himself in.
Amid all the rumour and conjecture surrounding Ireland's senior players this Christmas, both of the New Zealanders in charge of Friday's derby between Ulster and Munster are out of contract in June and have yet to agree new deals. And, in the post-Brian McLaughlin world, nobody is safe.
Yesterday, Munster coach Penney -- who wants to stay for at least another season -- described the situation as "progressing" amid rumours of a Declan Kidney comeback and a back-room shake-up at Thomond Park.
Penney does have a date in mind when he would like to get his future sorted, but he wasn't about to make that information public yesterday as he met the press after a long training session at the University of Limerick. The Cantabrian remained diplomatic when pressed on his future, but was positive that a deal can be brokered in the coming weeks.
"Things are progressing," he said. "The organisation have been great to deal with. I can't speak highly enough about the people behind the scenes. We're still working through it."
He was more clear on Paul O'Connell's situation, asserting his belief that the Ireland captain would be remaining with the province beyond the expiration of his deal at the end of the season.
"On Paul, with the guy's presence and what he has given us all, it would be unheard of that he'd leave," he said.
On-pitch matters may have been focusing Penney's mind as his side's nine-match unbeaten record will come in for its stiffest test yet at Ravenhill.
He will name his strongest available side for that clash, with Tommy O'Donnell hoping for a run to stake his claim for a Six Nations berth after Sean O'Brien's injury blow. O'Donnell is one of three concussion victims who returned to training, along with Dave O'Callaghan and Duncan Casey.
The coach will be unable to call on Conor Murray and Simon Zebo for the trip to Belfast, but said the duo have not yet been ruled out of the Heineken Cup tie with Gloucester on Saturday week.
Donnacha Ryan is likely to miss both of those matches but remains an outside bet for the final pool game against Edinburgh, and Penney was positive on the second-row's Six Nations chances.
The injury Sean Dougall picked up against Connacht is not as bad as first feared, but he and James Downey will miss the visit to Ulster.
James Cronin is a doubt with a back injury, but Ian Keatley, Damien Varley, BJ Botha and Felix Jones are back training.
While Penney admitted that losing O'Brien would be a blow for Ireland, he was backing the depth Joe Schmidt can call on at openside with O'Donnell a leading contender to take over.
"It's a tragedy for Sean," he said. "He's been in such good form but Ireland are lucky to have Tommy and Sean Dougall and other lads around the country performing so well. But he'll be a big loss."
This weekend will act as a national trial of sorts with both sides expected to be close to full strength at Ravenhill as O'Connell, Peter O'Mahony and others return to the fold.
It means Penney will need to disappoint some of the players who have contributed to the unbeaten run -- during the past three weeks, Munster have used 41 players.
"Certainly, rewarding the guys who have done a great job when the boys have been out is something that is always in the back of the mind because you have got to keep feeding and inspiring that group," he said.
"A number of them are stepping up and putting their hands up to go to that next level. They've done all they can.
"We're going to have a group of people who are p***ed off -- but that's the nature of the beast when you have a competitive rugby environment."