Try as they may, Munster can’t escape the stark reality facing them this season — for the first time in 15 years Ronan O’Gara will not wear the all-important No 10 jersey.
And in spite of all the positive words from the management and Paul O’Connell, there has been little indication that Ian Keatley, JJ Hanrahan or Johnny Holland are close to filling O’Gara’s boots.
Keatley’s credentials will be tested at Thomond Park on Saturday for the visit of Gloucester for a Seat Series game that may just belie the term friendly because the sides will clash in the Heineken Cup later in the season.
“We arranged this game before the draw came out and I suppose it’s a little bit of an advantage for them before they come back later on,” said Rob Penney.
“But from our perspective to get the boots on is great. The pre-season has been eight or nine weeks of pretty special input.
“The staff have done a great job and the boys are in good shape physically. We’re dripping in the rugby stuff and hopefully a good performance on Saturday will get us off to the right start.
“We brought up a few guys from the academy and Andrew Conway from outside who will be well known to everyone and I’m excited about his addition to the group. But one of the beauties this year is that we have a stable group.
“The core of the guys are pretty well intact and the benefits of some of the learnings we took out of last year and the changes we’re making into this year have happened more rapidly because of that stable group.”
Which is all very fine except just who is going to fill O’Gara’s boots?
Penney hints Keatley is the front-runner but, even as he speaks, the New Zealander finds it difficult to conceal his deep regret at the departure of the greatest 10 ever to pull on the red jersey.
“ROG will be sadly missed and he leaves a big hole,” Penney acknowledged.
“We’re not expecting another ROG-type player in that No 10 jersey, he’s a once in a lifetime kind of player, but I think these guys will do the jersey proud and that’s all you can ask for.
“You’d have to say Ian has his nose in front given his performances last year, with the likelihood that he’ll get early opportunities.
“That’s probably where it will start early on but JJ will certainly have chances and it’s about making sure whoever is doing the best thing for the team. Ian has a tremendous kicking game and he’s a really good organiser.
“There are elements of the young blokes coming through that will be good for our team.
“They’re not the finished product yet. They need time, as a 10 always does, to grow because the pressure and the decision-making in that position is such a difficult area to manage.
” I think they will grow into the role and I’m pretty excited to have them in a red jersey over the next few years.”
The question of Penney’s attempts to alter Munster’s traditional approach is never far from the surface but he patiently and manfully confronts the issue.
“In fact it’s not a new style at all,” he insists. “There are elements of what Munster have done in the past and there’s no team on the planet that doesn’t have a robust element and it goes without saying that it remains part of the repertoire here.
“The subtle changes we have made to all our methods in terms of our attack were highly evident for everyone to see.
“Ever since the start of the last campaign, I’ve been passionately driven by this squad and seen the potential within them. That Harlequins result was highly unexpected by a number of people but from within the group that was not the case. The Clermont game was just up another level. They were the champion team of Europe supposedly, and to come so close was very disappointing, but underneath it all there were droplets of confidence that are now being manifested in a much bigger way which is very exciting for this group of men.”
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