At a time of year when things should be slowing down, last week proved one of the busiest for those charged with the responsibility of running the game in Munster.
While the powers that be in Leinster and Ulster have only one thing on their minds — winning the Heineken Cup at Twickenham — their southern counterparts are doing everything to ensure it won’t be long before Munster will be gracing that exalted stage again.
How long it will take to scale those heights is open to conjecture but it is difficult to escape the fact that Munster’s success over the last decade was founded on a collection of extraordinarily talented, home-grown men, four of whom bid farewell to the game in Thomond Park last Saturday night.
In the stand, John Hayes, Jerry Flannery and David Wallace watched on as part of a Munster squad for the last time while, on the field, Mick O’Driscoll sampled the adrenalin rush of a Thomond cheer for the last time before hanging up his boots at the end of the month.
Tomás O’Leary and Lifeimi Mafi were also bidding farewell to the red jersey before departing for London Irish and Perpignan respectively, while Peter Stringer scored a try for Newcastle earlier in the day in their Premiership relegation battle against Wasps.
In addition, a considerable doubt hangs over the career of Denis Leamy due to a debilitating hip injury.
Players come and go but to lose that much quality, experience and class in one swoop would leave a massive void in any squad.
To lose personnel of such quality means that whoever the Munster brains trust entrusted to step into Tony McGahan’s shoes would have a very challenging job and require a very specific skill set. The chief requirement in my view is a proven track record in developing young talent and bringing them to the next level. McGahan has done brilliantly in this regard. Under his watch, Conor Murray and Peter O’Mahony have already played for Ireland while Simon Zebo must surely be in the frame for the tour to New Zealand next month.
A new head coach also requires experience and success in major club competitions and display a competency in dealing with top players of proven international quality. Therefore I think Munster have chosen wisely, although it is imperative Rob Penney be given time to find his feet and a chance to familiarise himself with the rugby-mad environment in which he will find himself from July.
It helps that he has spent all of his playing and coaching career in Christchurch, an area very similar to his new environs. It is a rugby-mad region, even by New Zealand standards, so Penney will have no difficulty in dealing with the intensity and level of expectation he now faces.
While he was part of the Crusaders coaching ticket that won a Super 12 title in 2005, the majority of his experience has been at provincial level with Canterbury, where he has been head coach since 2006 and delivered four consecutive ITM cups. To distinguish between the two, New Zealand has amalgamated their many provincial sides into five Super franchises that compete against the best from Australia and South Africa in Super rugby.
The Crusaders’ franchise area encompassed the upper South Island of New Zealand and is formed from the Buller, Canterbury, Marlborough, Mid-Canterbury, Nelson Bay, South Canterbury and West Coast rugby unions. The biggest throughput of players, however, comes from the Canterbury provincial side that Penney has rebuilt on a number of occasions over the past six years.
In that time he had a huge role to play in the development of a number of Canterbury academy players from provincial rookies to quality Super Rugby performers and on to the national squad. Kieran Reid, Owen Franks, Colin Slade, Sonny Bill Williams and Sam Whitelock, all of whom were part of New Zealand’s World Cup-winning squad last October, are players Penney has helped nurture along with the next generation of All Blacks who are currently starring for the Crusaders in Robbie Fruean, Matt Todd and Tom Taylor.
By all accounts Penney is a typical Kiwi, hard-nosed, passionate, knowledgeable and direct. He doesn’t suffer fools. That may well have cost him in terms of securing a Super Rugby appointment closer to home as many in his native land feel he has been forced out of New Zealand due to a long-running feud between his close friend, Australian and former Crusaders coach Robbie Deans, and the New Zealand rugby union.
Coming from a region which has enjoyed unprecedented success in recent times — the Crusaders have won seven Super titles since 1998 — it will be interesting to see just what Penney makes of the Munster set-up as it is currently configured.
His biggest decision could yet be to call time on the two centres that have made up the professional scene in Munster — Cork and Limerick — which is beginning to look decidedly outdated in the world of professional sport. It would also enable a trimming down on support staff as at present there is duplication in a number of areas due to location.
Penney’s role is all encompassing, controlling and directing a big management team of specialist coaches, video analysts, strength and conditioning specialists, medical, nutritional and logistical expertise but one that he has considerable experience at.
In addition, he will have to work closely with the Munster academy staff and maintain a watching brief over the up-and-coming talent in the province. His hands-on experience in the Canterbury academy set-up will surely add greatly to the big strides Munster have made in that area in recent times.
Perhaps the most important challenge for the new man is to forge a solid working relationship with the person he pipped for the post and who at this point is openly acknowledged as his ultimate successor.
Nobody is more steeped in Munster Rugby than Anthony Foley and his knowledge of the players coming through the system, allied to his experience and exposure to Heineken Cup rugby, will be crucial to Penney.
Gert Smal’s recent illness allowed Foley demonstrate his ability, knowledge and organisational skills to a wider and more critical audience and the response from those outside of Munster in the Irish camp was both positive and receptive. Penney must now draw on that.
The last remaining piece of the jigsaw will be the appointment of a backs coach and it is only right that the new man is offered the time and space to make that appointment himself. Penney arrives here in July after being overlooked for a number of appointments in his native land despite his many accomplishments.
A fellow with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove will find a readymade home in Munster, especially as there are many out there quick to relegate the province into third place in Ireland’s provincial pecking order. Rob Penney will have something to say about that.
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