This draw against the RaboDirect Pro12 reigning champions at Thomond Park on Saturday night represented the stemming of a four-game losing streak to the Ospreys and put to bed the nightmare of back-to-back defeats at Scarlets and Treviso.
So the province, having clunked out of the reverse gear they had slipped into on their travels last month, is hopeful the darkest hour of their season is now disappearing in their rear-view mirror.
That performance in Italy eight days ago was described by hooker Damien Varley as “abysmal” and prompted Penney to fire up the “blow torch” at a team meeting last Wednesday. Suitably singed by the experience, Varley declared himself satisfied by the reaction it had sparked in the Munster players.
“It’s a huge step forward for us,” Varley said. “The last two weeks were bad results, poor performances, way off par by our standards, so this is a huge step forward. We’re disappointed we didn’t win but we can still build on it and you never know what’s going to happen with the remaining games.”
Penney was also pleased his players responded to the harsh words of the previous week.
“There was no lack of commitment this week and that was important,” he said. “There was a marked difference in their performance this week than in the last two weeks.” So the rot has been stopped, but a draw against a team six points ahead of them in the race for the play-offs did nothing to improve Munster’s prospects of achieving a top-four league finish for a sixth successive season and sustaining its record of reaching the Rabo semi-finals in every year since the knockout stages were introduced in 2009-’10.
Munster have five regular season leagues games remaining, two of which are at home to interprovincial rivals Connacht on March 23 and Leinster (April 12/13/14), in which to bridge a seven-point gap to a top-four finishing place. They also have just two fixtures to prepare to face English Premiership leaders Harlequins on the road in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals on April 7.
Even the normally positive Penney, knowing that a coach cannot read the riot act to his players before every game, was unusually coy about whether this performance against Ospreys represented a decent-enough step in the right direction.
“Well, I don’t know because you can’t do that every week and it’s not appropriate to. You can’t live in that zone. Players have to get themselves in the right position to play that well. We’ll find out.”
It was Varley’s 44th-minute try converted by Ronan O’Gara — enjoying a revival in personal form less than 24 hours before he was sensationally dropped by Ireland — that had given the home side a 13-6 lead, the under-fire Munster fly-half having edged his side in front with two well-taken penalties in the first half, each negated by the boot of opposite number Matthew Morgan.
Yet having taken the initiative and gained further confidence when referee Nigel Owens awarded a scrum penalty soon after on a night when his decisions had tended to go against them, the momentum was swept away again thanks to a yellow card for Stephen Archer on 50 minutes after the Munster tighthead charged James King.
Munster quickly paid the price, with Morgan kicking to the corner and Ospreys producing a lineout drive that saw Jonathan Thomas cross the line for a converted try that levelled the scores.
And that was that. Fifty minutes in and the scoring stopped as quickly as the game had come to life. Munster, unable to penetrate an Ospreys defence that Penney felt were not penalised sufficiently for shooting out of the line and deliberately straying offside, played out the rest of the game largely in possession but drifting laterally until O’Gara sent a speculative drop goal attempt wide to bring the game to a disappointing end.
“We could easily have picked up a couple of penalties and I’m sure ROG would have slotted them and we’d be in a different state.”
Penney added: “Ronan O’Gara did really well. It was really pleasing, particularly as he’s had a tough couple of weeks, so it shows how resilient the man is and he’s got a lot left to offer.”
There was praise too for scrum-half Cathal Sheridan, making his first competitive start for Munster and displaying a quick, clean pass despite the dislocated finger he suffered early in the game. Sheridan, in fact, did not make way for replacement Duncan Williams until the 59th minute and Penney said: “I thought he acquitted himself really well. It was a big game for the young fella on the back of a bit of pressure and he did everything we asked of him.”
MUNSTER: F Jones (I Keatley, 71); D Howlett (capt), C Laulala, J Downey, D Hurley; R O’Gara, C Sheridan (D Williams, 59); D Kilcoyne (W du Preez, 63), D Varley (M Sherry, 59), S Archer (BJ Botha, 60); I Nagle (BJ Botha, 55-60; D Foley, 60), B Holland; P Butler, T O’Donnell, J Coughlan.
Yellow card: Archer 50-60 mins Replacements not used: S Dougall, I Dineen.
OSPREYS: R Fussell; T Habberfield, J Spratt, A Beck, T Isaacs; M Morgan, K Fotuali’i; D Jones (M Thomas, 57), S Baldwin, C Griffiths (D Arhip, 59); A Wyn Jones – captain, L Peers; J King, S Lewis, J Thomas.
Replacements not used: M Dwyer, I Gough, D Baker, A Ellis/S Davies, R Webb, T Grabham.
Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU).