Penney sticks to guns as he fights for his future
Perpignan scalp can keep three-year plan on track, writes Ruaidhri O'Connor
IT BECAME clear quite early in Rob Penney's time in Ireland that he was a man who liked to challenge people. Not just his players either -- journalists interviewing the Munster coach needed to think about what they were asking as the New Zealander would ask them to explain themselves or challenge the logic on which their questions were based.
Mostly, he has taken issue with the perception that he is fundamentally changing Munster's style of play and moving the province away from what made them great.
Last Sunday, when he was asked whether his side's 'wide-wide' game had failed to commit the Perpignan defenders, he replied acerbically: "That's your opinion, write it."
The coach, described in 2012 by Munster chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald as "a man with great presence, a good personality, a good track record and a good knowledge of the game of international rugby and the way it is going", is well able to stand up for himself.
However, midway through what he sees as a three-year plan, Penney finds himself fighting for his future.
Whatever the logic behind handing the coach an initial two-year deal, it has left uncertainty hanging over the province at a critical time of their season.
The New Zealander wants to stay for another 12 months at least, and one senses that victory in Catalonia this weekend will secure his wish.
After all, this is a coach whose team sit top of the Pro12 and remain on course for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals despite slipping up badly in their opening pool game at Murrayfield; a man who guided his team to the last four of Europe in his first season and all the while is regenerating a squad that has lost three-quarters of the players who made them great over the last decade.
In a results business, Penney is giving Munster very little choice, yet his future remains uncertain as he boards a flight to Perpignan this afternoon.
It has been a good week so far: Conor Murray's signature has been put to a new contract and the scrum-half's decision to turn down a lucrative move to France is a ringing endorsement for the province. Likewise, Robin Copeland's decision to get in touch and offer his services means that an already competitive back-row will be bolstered next season.
Paul O'Connell, Keith Earls and Donnacha Ryan may be yet to commit to the cause, but the retention of Murray was the most significant bit of business to be done this winter.
"When the player is signing a contract, they are not just signing up to play, they are signing up to the whole culture and environment that's around -- their mates, the ability to see a vision for themselves to hopefully be on the back of some silverware at some point..." said Penney.
"I'm sure if Conor didn't believe that, he had plenty of options to do other things and it is pleasing that he saw the same sort of future for the organisation that Peter O'Mahony has seen and hopefully Paul O'Connell has seen. A number of other guys like Tommy O'Donnell who committed recently... they have seen something they want to be part of.
"The only influence I can have around lads signing is hopefully to create an environment that they want to be part of."
This week, Penney was asked if it was difficult to watch all of this planning with his own future up in the air.
"No, you just buy into the organisation," he replied. "You watch the lads and you want the best for the organisation, you want the best team whoever is coaching and for this group to kick on. It's not an issue as far as I'm concerned."
He has said that he wants to stay, that this remains a three-year project, but the doubts still linger among pockets of the Thomond Park faithful.
The game plan is questioned and even when an admittedly off-colour Top 14 side were beaten by five tries, the mood post-Perpignan was decidedly downbeat. The critics point out that four of those tries came through the forwards, while the wide game is still viewed with suspicion.
At times, Munster lived up to the stereotype of the problems Penney has endured as their runners failed to fix an opponent, ran laterally towards the touchline and closed the space for the pace merchants out wide.
But there was much to admire in the performance too: the ferocity at the breakdown was excellent, the pack dominated their visitors and their counter-attack looked sharp even if the opportunities weren't finished off as the coach would have liked.
Penney has overseen a changing of the guard instigated by Tony McGahan. He believes the progress from last year has been manifest -- they have found league consistency where it was so lacking last season and, despite not firing in Europe, they are still in the hunt.
Under his watch, Simon Zebo has become a world-class winger, Dave Kilcoyne, Mike Sherry and Tommy O'Donnell have become internationals and Murray and O'Mahony have risen to become the natural heirs to the retiring heroes of 2006 and 2008.
While there is an increasing presence of players from outside Munster in the squad and the change in the style of play has led to questions about whether the values on which the success of the last decade was built are being eroded, the ability to remain highly competitive during such a changing of the guard has been impressive.
Before he first arrived, Penney spoke of handing the baton to Anthony Foley, who remained on the books as forwards coach but was seconded to the Ireland set-up for much of last year.
The former No 8, yesterday appointed coach of the Ireland Wolfhounds, has since spoken of heading abroad to gain experience, so he may feel that his time will have to wait.
Last week, former second-row Mick O'Driscoll strongly backed the coach, saying: "When Rob came in you had people moaning; he was in the door six months and you had the usual idiots out there calling for his head. It was ridiculous. Rob will be the first to admit he went through a difficult period, but they seem to have turned it around and are going well enough."
It is hard to disagree with the measured assessment. When he appointed Penney, Fitzgerald hailed the extensive recruitment process and the calibre of the candidates who had applied.
They went for the little known but highly respected Cantabrian and now they must decide whether to stick or twist.
A win at the Stade Aime Giral would give them little choice, but given the investment and the signs of progress it appears that the New Zealander will be challenging all around him for a little while longer.