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Dublin: 7 °C Wednesday 1 October, 2014

Simon Hick Column: Detail is king and Penney must get the balance right

While Munster are flying high in the PRO12 table, they will undoubtedly be judged on their Heineken Cup campaign.

Penney during Munster training.
Penney during Munster training.
Image: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

LAST SEASON MUNSTER struggled in the league, were devoid of consistency, but found some old magic in the Heineken Cup.

Whether it was deliberate or not, there appeared to be two gameplans – one for average opposition, and one for the heavyweights.

One apparently simple blueprint based on aggression and doggedness and street smarts, the other a shiny new template from New Zealand involving multi-phase patterns, skip passes and offloading props.

Ultimately it was the latter that succeeded, and the former that heaped such pressure on Rob Penney.

This season they are mowing down the RaboDirect PRO12 weaklings, and the younger players in particular are taking to Penney’s ways, but this year’s Heineken Cup is what he will be judged on.

His error last season perhaps wasn’t the gameplan itself, more so the sheer speed of the attempted transformation, and the extremes to which he took it. They looked overloaded with information but short on instinct.

Interestingly, this is similar to how the Ireland players looked against Australia two weeks ago, and indeed how Leinster looked for their first few games after Schmidt’s arrival.

Now that video analysis has become a bigger part of the game, and there are more coaches with time to look at the minutiae of defence, attack coaches have had to evolve and innovate. This leads to a lot of data being churned out, and players sometimes having to cram.

Undoubtedly, at provincial level coaches can aim to provide a greater level of detail. At international level coaches tend to rely more on player talent (though that’s not always the case). There are huge swathes of Geordan Murphy’s book (now a backs coach at Leicester) detailing his concern about the simplicity of Declan Kidney’s strategy at the 2011 RWC.

Having already given up on getting his place, he had several chats with the coaches before the quarter final about our over reliance on Ferris and Sean O’Brien to break tackles. Murphy was used to the Leicester set-up, where he was expected to follow a plan for five or six phases.

For the RWC quarter final, Kidney didnt give them enough variety, and on the opposite end of the scale, Schmidt gave them too much to think about for the Australia game last month.

One of the themes coming from the press conferences during the November Series was how surprised the non-Leinster players were at the amount of homework they had every night. It takes time for a coach like Schmidt to bed in his ideas, and perhaps the same is true for Penney.

There is a tendency among analysts who played in the 70′s and 80′s to say rugby is a simple game of passion and collisions and scrums and ‘fronting up’, same as it always was.

Analysts who played in the professional era, and especially those who retired in the last few years, will accept collisions are still hugely important, but also talk in depth about defensive patterns and lines of running and decoy moves and all the things the casual observer might not have noticed.

The truth is rugby has changed, to the point where it feels like a different sport to the one played decades ago.

A typical professional side in the RaboDirect PRO12 or the French Top 14 will have about 25 moves or strike plays for a season, approximately 10/12 of those will be stock moves they need to know for every game.

Each of those basic plays would have a few variations, with some teams designing them for the middle, left and right hand sides of the field.

They would also have some moves designed specifically for each opponent. Add in lineout calls, defensive systems, a kicking strategy, restarts, and counter attacks ploys, and you have a lot of information floating around a players head as he waits for the kick off.

Gordon D’Arcy spoke to us on Second Captains two days after the New Zealand game, and he was already worrying about the number of calls and moves he had to learn for Leinster training the following day. This is what’s expected of modern professionals.

Detail is king, and the best coaches marry that with aggression and spontaneity. Over the next two weekends, Penney has to show signs he is getting the balance right.

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