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Dublin: 17 °C Friday 29 August, 2014

Locks on the wing and winning pretty: Rob Penney’s rocky Munster road

The New Zealander arrived in Ireland with some radical ideas about changing the province’s playing style.

Rob Penney lets Damien Varley have his say on the training ground.
Rob Penney lets Damien Varley have his say on the training ground.
Image: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

MUNSTER RUGBY CONFIRMED yesterday that head coach Rob Penney would be leaving in the summer to begin a three-year role abroad.

The New Zealander held off competition from Anthony Foley and Tana Umaga, in early 2012, to be named as the new Munster coach. He has divided opinion since taking up the role and his imminent departure will cause relief in some quarters and regret in others. Here are some of the defining moments of Penney’s reign.

Two defeats in a row but Edinburgh are in town

Munster began the Rob Penney era with three wins from their opening four games and a narrow loss away to Ulster. A second defeat followed to Leinster, at Lansdowne Road, with Penney bemoaning the lack of a TMO decision after a Casey Laulala score was chalked off. The Kiwi endured his first successive losses when they fell to Racing Métro in the Heineken Cup a week later. As Munster coach, two defeats in a row is a crisis and Penney, after six games in charge, was on the defensive.

Luckily for him, and Munster, Edinburgh came to town. Michael Bradley’s men were hammered 33-0 in bonus point style. Penney explained his team was on an upward curve but admitted it was difficult to change the team’s forwards-dominated mind-set. “There’s light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

The curse of Musgrave Park

From the moment he was given the keys to the head coach’s office, Penney spoke about establishing one base for Munster at Limerick. He was eager to put a halt to training sessions in Cork and his team’s results in the Rebel County would have expedited that desire.

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CJ Stander feels the cold (and rain) in Musgrave Park. INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Munster lost crucial Pro12 matches at Musgrave Park, against Scarlets and Cardiff, to seriously damage their hopes of securing a top four spot. His team also struggled during the Six Nations window, losing three games and drawing another of their six fixtures in February and March. Winger Johne Murphy admitted that the failure of the extended squad to step up cost Munster a place in the knock-out stages.

Zebo’s hat-trick secures Heineken Cup quarter final

Having lost two Heineken Cup pool games, Munster needed to beat Racing Métro and score four tries in the process. Their cause was helped significantly when Antoine Batut was red-carded after five minutes. Simon Zebo was the hero as Munster cut loose and shredded the French side. Penney spoke with pride of his team’s backline play before adding that everything would have to go to plan if they were to overcome Harlequins in the quarter final.


YouTube credit: Tap Tackle

Locks showing up on the wing

A concern that dogged Penney’s initial months at the Munster helm revolved around the use of forwards in backline plays. By looking to keep the ball in hand and unlock defences out wide, Penney often drew up moves that featured locks and back-rows out wide. While Munster possessed dangerous wide-men such as Zebo, Doug Howlett and Keith Earls, there were often groans around Thomond Park when a sweeping move would peeter out as Donncha O’Callaghan or Paul O’Connell were asked to outpace the covering defence out wide.

In the final months of the 2012/13 season, Munster would begin a match following the Penney blueprint before reverting to mauls and drives by their pack. Indeed, following their Heineken Cup win over Edinburgh in January of this year, James Coughlan commented, “Maybe in the first half we tried to do a little too much; a few knock-ons and we lost shape but we were delighted with the second-half performance. We were clinical when we needed to and we got through the phases.”

Heineken Cup heroics and farewell to ROG

Munster reserved their finest performance of the season to shock Quins at The Stoop and march on to a Heineken Cup semi final with Clermont. With O’Connell back from injury and directing traffic on the pitch, there was little evidence of ball changing hand rapidly and laterally. The Munster pack kept a close eye on the ball, won scrum penalties and allowed Ronan O’Gara to kick the life out of the English side.

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ROG and POC celebrate at The Stoop. INPHO/Dan Sheridan

It was more of the same in the semi final in France but Clermont clung on to advance to a final encounter with Toulon at Lansdowne Road. Penney earned praise from former players Stuart Barnes and Paul Wallace but his side missed out on the Pro12 semi-finals. By seasons’ end Munster had said goodbye to legends Ronan O’Gara, Marcus Horan and Doug Howlett.

End of season reflection

Speaking to TheScore.ie at the end-of-season IRUPA awards, Penney looked back on his first season as Munster coach. He said:

When we get our top people on the track we are a very competitive team, We’ve lost about 1,000 [Munster] caps in the last 12 months and a lot of those older guys would have been holding it together for us in the Rabo Cup. There’s a lot of new guys trying to find their way in a very competitive league at the moment. We’ve fundamentally got two teams.”

Penney insisted he never read the sports pages but added, “All I do is my job and if the job’s not good enough, people get rid of me. Simple as that; I can’t worry about it.”

Losing to Edinburgh

Andrew Conway and Gerhard van der Heever were brought in over the summer and six Academy players [including James Cronin and Duncan Casey] were promoted to full-time contracts. Penney was pleased with his team’s start in the league but admitted the search for perfection was ongoing. “I’m always looking for the perfect performance,” he said, “and you very rarely get it. In fact, I’ve probably never seen one.”

He certainly did not see one in Edinburgh as his team lost their Heineken Cup opener at Murrayfield. Munster looked flat in the away loss and Penney, for the first time, questioned his players’ commitment in public.

He told Off The Ball, “We just weren’t there today. It’s always a worrying sign when you walk into the changing room and there’s not a lot of noise and there’s not a lot of excitement there. It was just one of those days, at half time, where as a coaching staff we just tried to get the boys up and give them some answers. But unless they’re prepared to deliver on the expected performance, there’s not a lot you can do about it.”

The emergence of JJ and a late, late French show

David Wallace declared, following the loss to Edinburgh, that Munster play best with their backs to the wall. So it proved in the Heineken Cup as Penney’s men rallied to win five games in succession and qualify as pool winners.

The stand-out performance was a nail-biting win away to Perpignan. A Tomas Benvenuti try after 78 minutes looked to have given the home side victory before substitute JJ Hanrahan finished off an all-or-nothing surge. He dived over in the corner in stoppage time and Munster won 18-17. Captain Peter O’Mahony reflected, post-match, that a new generation of Munster heroes was beginning to emerge.

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Penney reflected that the last-gasp victory was ‘beautiful to watch’. “Once we get our rugby right,” he added, “we’ll be an interesting side to play against.”

Hello Robin, goodbye Rob

While the signing of Robin Copeland hinted at a savvy province securing another up-and-coming talent, CJ Stander penning a contract extension should have tipped supporters off that Penney was considering a move closer to home. Penney, a former flanker himself, never took to the South African back row and used him as an impact player off the bench.

Penney must have been pleased with the emergence of young players such as Dave Kilcoyne, James Cronin, Ronan O’Mahony, JJ Hanrahan and Dave Foley but has been tempted by coaching fruits closer to home. Munster lead the Pro12 at present and welcome Toulouse to Thomond Park in the Heineken Cup quarter finals. Munster is a team bred on success, however, and his time in Ireland will not truly be considered a success unless some silverware is claimed in May.

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