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Rob Penney's shock exit opens can of worms

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Rob Penney

Rob Penney

SPORTSFILE

Rob Penney

Of all the Kiwis, in all the press conferences, in all the towns building up to Ireland's seismic clash with Wales tomorrow, few expected the name of Rob Penney to explode into yesterday's team announcement at Carton House.

Rumours began to sweep like wildfire throughout the stately retreat yesterday morning as the players drifted into their one and only heavy training session of this curtailed week.

The IRFU, who part-fund Munster and pay their boss's wages, won't have been too amused at having their mess splattered all over the lush carpets of national team HQ.

In any event, the Twitterati may have beaten them to the punch.

Nevertheless, the national captain, still coughing after the chest infection that dramatically ruled him out of action last weekend, hardly wanted his first question to be about the flight of the club coach to whom he has been so loyal.

Given the fractured nature of the northern hemisphere season, at least the dwindling Munster representatives in the national side won't have to deal with the fallout directly until they leave the Ireland camp at the end of next month. But, with Munster poised for a mammoth Heineken Cup quarter-final against Toulouse, and now forced into a coaching quest very late into the season when many jobs are nailed down, this news will continue to reverberate for the rest of the season.

And several questions remain.

WHY IS ROB PENNEY LEAVING NOW?

"I'm keen to stay, as I said before. The organisation has been top-class to deal with. It is progressing well and all parties are pretty comfortable at the moment."

This is what Penney told this newspaper a month ago regarding his discussions concerning a contract extension, believed then to be an agreed decision to take up the option after his current deal of a one-year extension. So what has changed in the meantime?

It is unclear whether Penney, after being offered merely a one-year deal – which, based on the similar extension to Mark Anscombe, would appear to be driven by paymasters in IRFU HQ – decided to angle for a second year.

This would not have seemed unreasonable, given Munster's qualification for a home Heineken Cup quarter-final, their position atop the Pro12 and the success in integrating a phalanx of fresh, exciting young talent.

There was disquiet amongst some in Munster at the prospect of assistant Simon Mannix being also retained on the ticket, particularly given Anthony Foley's anxiety to ascend the coaching ladder. It is unclear whether Munster, who continue to be mired in financial trouble – they lost over €1m last season – or the IRFU may have been able to countenance an extra year and at the rate Penney may have been seeking.

"Penney, who initially negotiated a two-year contract with the option for a third year, has opted to decline the extension offer," said a Munster statement. "The terms and conditions of this extension had been agreed by the Munster Professional Games Committee and the IRFU but Rob has since attracted the interest of another club and there are terms on offer that are in line with Rob's long-term needs."

Therefore, when other options became available, it is reasonable to assume that a rugby coach, one of the sport's most uncertain and precarious occupations, would have scanned elsewhere for available options.

On face value, the lure of a purported coaching deal in Japan's Top League which, based on current salaries in the lucrative region offer anything up to €500,000 net – he would have earned less than half of that at Munster – would be enough to entice anyone to reject Munster's offer, even one he had negotiated himself.

With children approaching university age, the desire to be closer to his Canterbury home and provide more financial security for his family is obviously a consideration.

"I am disappointed to be leaving Munster as I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here," Penney explained. "I have to take this opportunity presented to me and prioritise my family and personal circumstances at this time."

Penney, like predecessor Tony McGahan, can easily continue his career in his native New Zealand after his lucrative stint in Japan.

WILL THIS DISRUPT MUNSTER'S SEASON?

There are too many strong leadership figures within the Munster set-up – starting with the current Ireland captain himself, not to mention the professionalism of the coaches – to derail a hitherto successful campaign.

Countless examples exist of coaches winning silverware – Declan Kidney and Joe Schmidt are two prime examples of recent times – having already announced their departures from provincial posts. While this situation is subtly different, in that Penney's departure has been entirely unforeseen, the manner in which the Munster players carry themselves should obviate any dip in performance levels.

Even when Penney appeared to be struggling to implement his playing philosophy last season, it was noticeable how the players delivered when it was necessary, particularly in the famous Heineken Cup away win in Harlequins.

Munster have achieved an admirable consistency of performance this term, reflected in their Pro12 status, that mitigates against any implosion.

"We still have a few months to go and the goals remain the same – I want to achieve success with this great group of lads," said Penney.

WHAT DOES THE CAPTAIN THINK?

O'Connell displayed surprise at the decision – he said "shock" twice in quick succession – and was caught unawares having admitted to only hearing rumours of a possible departure.

It is unclear whether Penney's future was inextricably linked with O'Connell's. Yesterday, O'Connell seemed keen to stress that there were a variety of other factors that were crucial to his decision to agree to a deal to remain in Ireland.

"It was the whole package that played a part in it," he said. "The coaching set-up in Ireland, the strength and conditioning set-up in Ireland and in Munster as well, the way players are looked after.

"Rob is probably one part of that puzzle and I think Rob leaving doesn't make a massive difference. I think a lot of the pieces, a lot of the bits around my decision to stay, are still firmly there."

In essence, the captain is stating that, although disappointed at Penney's departure, it would not have swayed him when finally deciding to commit his future to Munster.

"We've done great to get a home quarter-final and I don't think Rob will take his foot off the gas one bit," added O'Connell.

SO WHO ARE THE MAIN CANDIDATES?

According to the bookies and the former Munster players canvassed yesterday, Anthony Foley would appear to be a shoo-in while another assistant, the highly-rated Ian Costello, is also primed for a prominent role.

Doug Howlett, already integrated in the Munster set-up after his premature retirement, could be involved as a specialist coach while a role for two-time Heineken Cup winner Declan Kidney as a part-time consultant has been mooted.

Many felt that when McGahan left two seasons ago, it was too early for Foley to assume the role and Ronan O'Gara raised eyebrows when suggesting that Munster should conduct a "global search".

"I presume Axel will be putting his hand up for it, he's waited a lot of time for his opportunity," said O'Connell, coming as close to an endorsement as seemed possible. "I don't think there'd be any complaint from the players if Anthony got it."

Foley would feel that this is his time to step up. With cash tight at Munster, he may be the best option as coaches like Dave Rennie and Wayne Smith, although superb candidates, could be out of Munster's financial reach.

Foley has been installed as 4/11 favourite. Mike Ruddock (8/1), O'Gara and Eric Elwood (10/1), Robbie Deans (16/1) and Eddie O'Sullivan (20/1) have also been listed.

Optimistic – or pessimistic – Munster supporters could always take a punt on George Hook at 200/1!

Irish Independent