In global rugby terms, Munster is a prestige posting. Only when opposition coaches and players experience the rawness of rugby passion here do they understand what we mean about it being something like a religious experience.
There will be coaching options from both hemispheres to choose from, but there has to be a Munster voice providing considerable input into the next Munster management team. And the obvious candidate is Anthony Foley. Don’t get hung up on the job title. In some respects job titles are irrelevant — good coaches just want to work with good coaches.
There’s no point in me running from the fact either that I want to return to Munster in a coaching capacity at some stage. I would like to be head coach with Munster. But after one season coaching? Unlikely. I will be in Paris again next season. I am adamant about that. There is idle talk floating already of the possibility of a return now to Munster as a backs coach. That’s for others to decide. But in terms of where I want to get to, this situation comes too early in my coaching career.
To explain: there are two scenarios, hopefully somewhere in the future for me. And they may or may not materialise — one is to come back as backs coach, the other as head coach. It’s too early, certainly on the second of those.
What I have at Racing Metro in terms of coaching education is absolutely brilliant. I am in on the ground floor, but with a team operating at the highest levels in France and in Europe. The job spec has been extended to official defence coach these past two months. I also have responsibility for Racing’s kicking game and how we exit our half of the pitch. With only two other coaches — both of them very secure individuals — I am getting up to speed on detail and learning a lot about the attack too. That’s the thing dealing with secure people — they have no difficulty in letting others in on their patch. There are no proprietorial lines in the sand.
We are still finding our feet, but with such a fast-tracked education, the learning curve is both steep and wide — a spectrum as broad as from kicking to player recruitment.
Quietly in recent months, Munster formalised a business role for Dougie Howlett, part of a bigger plan to attract investment into the province. Hopefully that will pay dividends in the future but anticipating an immediate increase in Munster’s budget capacity is asking a bit much. Whether it hampers chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald’s ability to go out to the marketplace and get the Penney replacement Munster need is a moot point, but it has obviously been a factor in the breakdown in negotiations over Penney’s new contract.
When I was texted developments yesterday, I was initially shocked and presumed Munster had not offered their NZ coach an extension option after all. How could Rob Penney turn down more time with Munster? But the statement is unequivocal in that regard. Rob Penney turned a new Munster offer down and decided to work elsewhere. The contract details are clearly the sticking point.
In my innocence I had taken my eye off the ball, presuming the deal was done.
How big a blow is this in the context of Munster’s season? Not much, in truth. For starters the attitude of that dressing room makes it a very easy place to work. From the Claw and Gaillimh era up to our own, the set-up is player-driven, and self-motivating. There was a time when the Munster gameplan was a collaboration of senior backs, senior forwards and the coaching staff all together in the one meeting.
Rob Penney has brought a new direction and a new edition to the Munster we knew. There are advantages to that game. It is Year Two of a big picture shift in how Munster play their rugby and with success this season, Penney could have been there for the next number of years. The progress was beguiling. But it will continue in the short term. It’s the Canterbury gameplan, and Munster will continue to employ that for the rest of the season.
Now if Rob and Simon Mannix were leaving with immediate effect, it would have been very interesting to see what would have happened. But even in the knowledge that they are being coached by someone who won’t be around next season, the Munster players will not deviate from the gameplan. They are highly motivated bunch anyway. In both 2006 and 2008, the standards the players asked of themselves was a key element of winning the Heineken Cup.
Penney had a difficult first season trying to introduce a different culture and getting players up to speed with it, all the while in a competitive environment; Trying to introduce a new gameplan is a game situation is a very tricky skill, merging Canterbury rugby with a traditional Munster high tempo, offload game.
That the management team seems to be putting a definite shape on the development of the system this year will only add to the frustration of Munster supporters who interpret yesterday’s announcement as a serious bodyblow.
However, with a generous amount of time now available to everyone before the new season in the autumn, it is not as disruptive as some might think. Players will do what players do — chatter, gossip and then get on with business. Perhaps they are unique in this regard, but Munster players play for their people as much, if not more, than their coach.
Don’t misunderstand this: the coach is hugely important, but not in a figurehead way that may be the case in other clubs and other sports. We’ve all “played for a coach” at some point — Tony McGahan is an example for me. ‘Dumper’ made me supremely confident about myself going out to play for Munster, but Deccie Kidney and Eddie O’Sullivan pushed the right buttons too on occasions.
But the manner of this departure is clean. Season’s end. New campaign, new coach.
And hopefully, a Munster voice as part of the management team.