A defeat to old rivals Leinster is never palatable to southern tastes but with the RaboDirect Pro12 deferring to a new Heineken Cup campaign this weekend and an extremely difficult challenge awaiting in Paris in the form of Racing Metro, one can imagine Penney would have hoped for a more consistent performance than his side delivered in Dublin. Certainly, Munster supporters among the 46,280 crowd will have wanted more tangible signs of the progress made under the new management.
Once again there were encouraging glimpses of the shape, or shapes, Penney’s team are striving to embrace, not least in the variety of play that produced two tries, one delightfully expansive one at the start of the game when Peter O’Mahony finished off a superb move; the other an old-school dive off the base of a ruck in the 67th minute from scrum-half Conor Murray that set up a rousing finale.
In between, there were shortcomings that point to continuing teething problems as players try to adapt to a new ethos. The decision-making abilities considered essential by the head coach for each of his players to play what is in front of them still need to be honed to avoid Munster becoming as predictable as they became at times against Leinster.
There were also the old frailties in Munster’s accuracy at the breakdown that Leinster exposed and led to referee Leighton Hodges issuing a 53rd minute yellow card to the unfortunate Damien Varley, only two minutes on the field, as the home side scored their third and final try through Brian O’Driscoll.
Two of those three scores resulted from errors — Shane Jennings having turned over Munster ball at one end of the field for Richardt Strauss to finish at the other end and open the scoring just four minutes in and Fergus McFadden charging through midfield with very little resistance to set up O’Driscoll’s try.
It underlined just how ruthlessly top-drawer outfits can punish lapses in intensity and concentration and Racing are more than capable of doing the same.
Yet it is difficult to argue with Penney’s belief that Munster are not too far away from putting it all together and clicking into gear and had Casey Laulala’s dot down in the 74th minute not been harshly ruled out as a forward pass from fellow centre Keith Earls — the ball appeared to have popped up straight for Laulala to dive onto — a second try in seven minutes might have tipped the balance for the Reds.
That score would have been a reward for Munster’s newly adventurous outlook, substitute fly-half Ian Keatley having kicked a penalty to the corner with his team trailing 30-21 rather than going for three points, the subsequent lineout leading to Laulala’s breach of the Leinster line that, had it been given, would have sent the visitors home with a losing bonus point their late rally deserved.
Penney refused to criticise his players for that decision, which adheres to his philosophy to play rugby rather than percentages until the final whistle.
“It’s a real shame we’re leaving without a point. I’m really rapped with the guys’ attitude towards the last 10 minutes,” Penney said. “They fought hard to get into the game and backed themselves to do well from that last lineout rather than take a shot at goal.
“The pragmatist in me says we should have taken the shot at goal. But we won’t be spending too much time on that. The lads backed themselves to play. The opportunity where Casey Laulala scored would have been interesting had it gone to TMO. We would have ended up with a bonus point anyway.”
Whether the pragmatist in Penney grows more vocal in a group-stage qualifying process where bonus points are considerably more vital remains to be seen but that is sure to be one of the considerations surrounding the selection discussion ahead of the trip to Stade de France.
Keatley’s bright 20-minute cameo at fly-half, allied to his impressive start to the Rabo campaign, will put pressure on Ronan O’Gara as he continues to shake off the rust from his prolonged, IRFU-enforced pre-season while Penney has to settle on his preferred centre partnership with Munster lacking punch in midfield against Leinster having started with two 13s in Laulala working inside of Earls and a genuine 12 in James Downey left on the bench.
The former Canterbury coach insisted this weekend’s clash with Racing Metro would not define his season and, still at the start of his tenure, that is the required long-term view. Yet he must surely recognise that by going against type and declaring Munster’s transition period over last week he sent a mixed message that will not have reduced the expectations that supporters place on their team ahead of a Heineken Cup campaign.
At least Penney and his players have it within their powers to put things right. He does not have the scale of injury problems his fellow Kiwi Joe Schmidt must counter this week as Leinster try and prepare for a third European title in a row that begins at home to a rampant Exeter Chiefs, who put 40 points past Harlequins in the Aviva Premiership on Saturday.
Kevin McLaughlin, Andrew Conway, Isa Nacewa and O’Driscoll all joined an already extensive casualty list during Leinster’s return to form following their shock 34-6 reverse at Connacht seven days previously.
It makes for a contrasting problem for Schmidt but both coaches have plenty of work to do in the coming days.
LEINSTER: I Madigan; A Conway (J Cooney, 65), B O’Driscoll (N Reid, 63), F McFadden, I Nacewa (F Carr, 52); J Sexton, E Reddan; H van der Merwe, R Strauss (S Cronin, 57), M Ross (J Hagan, 65); D Browne (T Denton, 72), D Toner; K McLaughlin (J Murphy, 12), S Jennings, J Heaslip (capt).
Replacements not used: J McGrath.
MUNSTER: D Hurley; D Howlett (capt), K Earls, C Laulala, S Zebo (J Downey); R O’Gara (I Keatley, 61), C Murray; D Kilcoyne (W du Preez, 57), M Sherry (D Varley, 51), BJ Botha; Donncha O’Callaghan (B Holland 49), D Ryan; Dave O’Callaghan (P Butler, 70), S Dougall (M Sherry, 54-63), P O’Mahony.
Yellow card: Varley 53-63.
Replacements not used: S Archer, D Williams.
Referee: Leighton Hodges (WRU).