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Tony Ward: Penney must ditch flawed 'total rugby' experiment or season is over

What is it they say about a bad dress rehearsal leading to a good on-the-day performance? For Munster's sake, let us sincerely hope that proves to be the case – because what we got in Scotstoun last Friday night was a ragged and disjointed losing effort, in which no unit of the team was remotely in touch with any other.

For the time of year, it was a performance totally out of character with what we have come to expect from the side that has continually set the competitive standard above all others in Europe.

Whatever may be lacking in skill has almost always been covered up through raw-boned competitiveness and intensity.

In Glasgow, the two-time Heineken Cup champions were stripped bare. With the week that's in it, and Harlequins next up, there is precious little room for manoeuvre but if alarm bells aren't ringing in high places down south then they should be.

We have all supported this new management in their attempt to expand on a hitherto successful formula to meet the demands of an ever expanding attacking game. The principle sells itself.


Rob Penney and Simon Mannix have preached patience, as they should, but there comes a time when even that most precious of commodities wears thin.

In a sense what is going on at Munster is almost in direct contrast to what we're seeing with Giovanni Trapattoni and the Irish soccer team.

While the fans want the Ireland football manager to back skill and trust in the new generation of Irish footballers the conservative habits of a lifetime prevent our highly decorated manager from going that route.

Yet, in Seamus Coleman, James McCarthy, Wes Hoolahan and James McClean, Trap has access to the type of skilful ball players that could permit meaningful possession football.

By comparison, and it hurts me to say this, Penney is attempting to make the proverbial silk purse out of a sow's ear.

His ambition is admirable, his pigheadedness not so. As of now, Munster do not possess the type of players comfortable enough in possession to play the Crusaders-style rugby the head coach aspires to.

If last Friday's drubbing proved one thing it is that the time for experimentation has long passed. You develop your system to suit the players and not the other way around.

With Paul O'Connell back in harness and some seriously talented back-row forwards in situ, it is time to revert to type. Either that or this management may not have the time or opportunity to implement the 'total rugby' blueprint to which they genuinely aspire.

Leinster developed a hard forward edge under Michael Cheika and Jono Gibbes, leaving it to Joe Schmidt to fine-tune the top-quality backs already in place and weave that dynamic for the type of aesthetically pleasing winning rugby we have witnessed in recent seasons. For Penney, Mannix and Anthony Foley there is no such luxury.

Three intercept tries at this level of the game don't just happen by chance.

It is a combination of the opposition efficiently reading a game plan – in which they recognise an inability to execute – allied to a team ill at ease with its pre-determined course of action.

In any normal course of events, when you are drifting out of your comfort zone you revert to type. If ever that principle applied it is to Munster now.

I'm not suggesting a revolt; just a sensible meeting between senior players and management to agree a short-term strategy to get them out of a bind.

A similar loose approach and they will be ripped apart at The Stoop. I doubt there is a Munster fan out there who cares how they do it as long as they beat Harlequins in the biggest game of their season.

To be fair to Penney, he has delivered knock-out qualification but lose this weekend and the competitive season is effectively over.

A half-century of points, including six tries, conceded in the run-in to a Heineken Cup quarter-final is most definitely not the Munster way.

There will be a circling of the wagons and a huge dependence on that old siege mentality. That in itself is no bad thing but of much more relevance is the strategy when they cross those white lines in Middlesex.

Some might call it dull, others negative, but Munster pride, reputation and a semi-final place is on the line.

They must not ape the Scotstoun antics. The pragmatic strategy that has served them so well for so long should be the only modus operandi on the agenda now.

Surely, if Glasgow has confirmed only one thing, it is that this Munster squad is attempting a style of play way beyond its means.

We jest, of course, but 'kick ahead, any head' does have more relevance now than at any other time in this frustrating season. For the present, let's delve into the past and the future will look after itself.

If Penney and Mannix fail to respect that heritage, their time at the helm may be much shorter than anyone might have expected.

There is a problem but there is also a quick fix available from within. Some might call it playing to win ugly but when did that ever bother any Munster team in the past?

Give me Munster winning the Munster way any time.

Irish Independent