THE REACTION TO Munster’s defeat to Edinburgh in their opening game of Pool 6 in the Heineken Cup has been slightly hyperbolic, even if the disappointment with the performance is completely justified.
Rob Penney was openly and directly critical of his players in the immediate aftermath of the game, and rightly so. However, his statements have been criticised in many quarters as attempting to distance himself from blame for the loss.
It’s worth taking a look back at exactly what the Kiwi said after the game before we go any further. Here are his words, courtesy of 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. We were just flat for some reason.”
The former Canterbury man went on to say that his squad need to “restore pride” in the Munster jersey after a display that “you’d be a bit embarrassed about looking back on.”
The Munster coach clearly and succinctly expressed exactly what most people watching the game felt; the Munster players simply weren’t at Murrayfield mentally. The line-out disorder, the handling errors and the failure to press off the defensive line consistently were all clear indicators of a lack of mental focus.
Is it not the head coach’s job to ensure that his players are sufficiently motivated for every game? Did Penney not fail in that regard? Yes, it is certainly his duty to ensure his players are up for every game, but these are largely experienced professionals. Being mentally focused for every game should be a minimum requirement and Munster’s display against Leinster the week before showed that Penney is certainly capable of motivating his players.
It is absolutely true that Penney has to shoulder some of the blame for this surprise failure, and it is likely that he has done so with the players privately. Still, calling them out and questioning their pride in public was the right move on this occasion. The Munster players should have no problem dealing with what Penney said post-match as his words will match exactly their own feelings.
Paul O’Connell will have been angered by the manner in which his pack failed to take control, JJ Hanrahan will have been furious with his mistakes after coming off the bench, and James Coughlan will have been self-critical about the back row’s failure to consistently provide quality possession for Conor Murray. The players themselves will be embarrassed about this performance.
Penney has publicly questioned his players with the intention of inciting a significant response against Gloucester at Thomond Park on Saturday. There have been suggestions that he should not have directed these words at the media, but kept them private instead. However, it is certain that he has shared similar sentiments behind closed doors and quite probably in more demanding tones.
Liam Toland has suggested that Penney’s reaction “puts a potential wedge between himself and the players,” but if that is the case then these Munster players have set themselves exceptionally low standards. They will recognise that their performance at Murrayfield deserved criticism, and they will have expected it. It should, and will, drive them through this week.
Any suggestions that Penney’s “embarrassment” at defeat to Edinburgh is disrespectful towards the Scottish side are off the mark too. His words were entirely directed at his own side, and he would almost certainly acknowledge that the Pro12 strugglers greatly upped their game on the European stage. Instead, the Munster coach was simply referring to his own squad’s failure to turn up.
Other explanations for this loss have included the idea that Munster’s current squad simply doesn’t have the quality to compete consistently week-on-week. That is another discussion entirely, but it is irrelevant right now. If Munster’s players aren’t fired up for games, then assessing their true ability is an impossible task. Against Leinster, they were motivated and clearly good enough.
Finally, the objections to Penney’s desired game plan have once again surfaced following the Edinburgh defeat. It is true that Munster forced play into wide channels at times, but calls for a return to the ‘traditional’ way of play are wide of the mark.
Munster’s best performances in recent times, namely away to Harlequins and Clermont in last season’s Heineken Cup, have seen Penney’s men playing with an effective blend of the wide-wide patterns and a more direct approach to make ground in midfield. The players themselves have spoken about that mix of play being their desired approach, and have highlighted the fact that Penney wants them to play in that manner.
Whatever about their style of play, if Munster’s players aren’t motivated to perform then they are not going to win games. Penney has done the right thing in publicly demanding better from them against Gloucester. He has earned the trust of the players in the past year, the right to express his utter disappointment in them. They will be eager to show Penney that they are up for this Heineken Cup campaign, and demonstrate to their loyal supporters that they take nothing for granted.
Most crucially, they will be out to quell their own anger and embarrassment at themselves.
What did you think of Rob Penney’s words after the loss to Edinburgh? Was he right to criticise his players? How will the players react against Gloucester? Thoughts are welcome in the comments section below…