Rob Penney: ‘I need to create a new Munster’
New coach Penney will cut no corners to restore province to former glories
IT could take Munster five years to return to the dizzy heights achieved during their golden era of supremacy in Irish and European rugby.
That is the opinion of Rob Penney, the man charged with with leading the team to a new dawn.
But the good news is, the New Zealander is a highly motivated individual.
"I am someone driven by collecting silverware and I am not a great loser. Sitting waiting five years to lift some silverware is not my preferred option," he says.
"But people will have to be patient. Generally, people do not adjust well to change and the more conservative the environment, the less open they are to change.
"Yet putting the realities of the situation to one side, I want this team to win something. They haven't been that far away from doing so of late ... so it is about consistency of performance and getting positive results."
Yet, Penney insists no one should underestimate the size of the task ahead.
For example, the loss to retirement of that renowned Munster trio -- Denis Leamy, David Wallace and Jerry Flannery -- is, in his words "a big blow".
He says frankly: "I see my task as the need to create a new Munster. I have signed a two-year contract with a one-year option. But I would love to see myself staying beyond the three years.
"It is a never-ending process, rebuilding and remodelling. You are never totally confident where you are at and with what you have got.
"It is a continuing process, but that really excites me. It will take five years probably to get to. And the way the team respond to me will be the critical factor. But, once I establish that connection with the group, that loyalty will be very tough to break."
No one should be surprised Penney wants to talk about longevity. He has spent 10 years with the Canterbury Rugby Union in New Zealand and a conversation with him is laced with talk of youngsters and developing them, especially in the current environment at Munster.
"Those key players who have retired will be sorely missed. You never replace that sort of rugby talent and intellectual properties," says Penney.
"On the other hand, there are some young kids who should have the opportunity to try to express themselves and make their mark. But for them to do that, we have to provide them with the mechanisms."
Those of you who know New Zealanders will understand the assertion that, in general, they are very solid citizens and Penney fits perfectly into that category.
He admits he sought the views of Leinster consultant scrum coach Greg Feek and "one or two other kiwis", as well as others around the Irish environment, before accepting the job. But his down-to-earth approach means he will get a rapid grip, an important understanding of how to go into Munster as an outsider and prosper.
"There is a very thin dividing line between revolution and evolution," he says. I must establish relationships with all the people that matter, so they can learn to trust and value my input, plus understand how I operate. That will take a little bit of time. But we have to establish what our key aims are, what everybody wants to do here.
"It would be ridiculous to go in there with a sledge-hammer approach. And anyway, there won't be a massive change needed to get short-term benefit. I think we can do some things subtly to improve. And once trust is built, we can all move forward together."
There is no beating about the bush regarding Leinster's current supremacy in Ireland.
"A long way behind them? No, not a long way, but behind them, yes. They are leading the way, certainly. But then, the coaching team at Leinster has established a Leinster way. They are intelligent coaches and have produced new and exciting stuff. The players have bought into that," he says.
"The challenge for others is to try to combat that and bring their own style. So, there are many challenges, but they are not insurmountable."
Penney's ambitions extend further than solely the pursuit of silverware for Munster, important as that undoubtedly is for Thomond Park supporters.
However, he sees his job as one allied closely to the needs of Irish rugby in a broader sense.
"I want to develop and grow as many Irish players as I can, so they can become great Irish internationals of the future. I want to help Irish rugby develop, that is as important.
"And if I do it for Munster, I will do it for Ireland. I want to see young people achieve their aims.
"I hope there are a lot of guys in the squad we put together at Munster who are just as desperate to play for Ireland and the Lions. It is about growing Ireland's people, too, as young men."
Penney's coaching philosophy inevitably contains a strong streak of pragmatism.
For example, if you don't have a player with Brian O'Driscoll's qualities as a defensive organiser in midfield, you have to look elsewhere. So, he sticks to some solid virtues.
"The style of rugby I believe in is to do with good athletes being able to express themselves with confidence and self-belief, so they can take their opportunities.
"Players should be thinking on their feet. If you can get your players buying into that and they are comfortable with that approach, as we have seen with Leinster, then you should reap the rewards. I would certainly aspire to that Leinster approach.
"But players must be able to dovetail attack and defence; you can't have one without the other. So, it is a balanced approach. And, essentially, you want to play winning rugby.
"I think the entertainment part comes on the back of players being able to express themselves and enjoy what they are doing, not feeling the pressure of the outcome.
"If we can transmit that attitude to this relatively traditional group of Munster rugby men, we will make some progress.
"Certainly, from the skills I have seen them show on tapes I have watched, they look eminently capable of playing that way."
Penney's background is by no means solely one forged in New Zealand rugby. He played a year in French rugby, for Lyon, in 1984/'85 and also a year in Italy, with Benetton Treviso.
"France was my first overseas experience. I had just turned 21 and it was a massive awakening to the outside world and how things in northern hemisphere rugby were -- and still are to a certain degree -- so different to back home.
"If a coach were to go into a place like Munster or anywhere overseas with hard and fast rules from back home about how it should all be done, then he would very likely end up very frustrated," he says.
Even so, Penney insists he is not daunted by the task ahead, which begins for him on July 14, his first day at the Munster coal face.
"I am not intimidated by it; no, not at all. Sure, there is an expectation that you should finish in the top two in every competition, every year.
"But that means you are in the finals and that is what I'll be seeking.
"I wouldn't like it any other way. I wouldn't want to go into an organisation that didn't have such high expectations.
"Some might say I am on a hiding to nothing, but I say, bring it on.
"But what we will need is a compelling vision of where we want to get to and how we go about it. And everyone has to buy into that mentality."
It is a long, long time ago that Penney first heard the name Munster. He was listening to a radio broadcast back home in New Zealand from what seemed the other end of the world, in faraway Ireland.
Like most Kiwis that famous day, he found it hard to understand just how an Irish province could upset the mighty All Blacks and cause such uproar back home.
Maybe he's about to discover the secret of those special Munster qualities.