It’s been a typical Heineken Cup week for Rob Penney, wading through medical bulletins, remedying problem areas in the previous week’s performance and batting away inquiries about his future as Munster’s head coach.
Such is life for the leader of one of European rugby’s most heralded teams, particularly when the clock is ticking on your contract.
Penney’s two years at the Munster helm since leaving his native Canterbury in New Zealand and replacing Tony McGahan in the summer of 2012 are coming to an end. The former ITM Cup-winner and New Zealand U20 coach has made no secret of his desire to continue with Munster and given the province’s recent good form in both Pro12 and Europe, a one-year extension for the Kiwi and his backroom staff of Simon Mannix, Anthony Foley and Ian Costello does not seem wide of the mark, although last month Penney said a final agreement might not be reached for “three or four months”.
“I’d very much like to stay. I always thought it’d be a three-year process,” the Munster boss said in December.
Which makes this month the halfway point in the so-called Penney Project, and ahead of the final two rounds of Heineken Cup pool play, the standings point to a feeling of so far, so good. Munster will kick off this evening’s game at Gloucester with a five-point lead over the English side in Pool 6 and knowing a bonus-point win at Kingsholm would secure a quarter-final berth ahead of the final round, when they host Edinburgh at Thomond Park a week tomorrow. And in the RaboDirect Pro12, Penney has steered his team to first place, just a second defeat in the league this season coming last weekend at Ulster to leave the Reds with a four-point lead at the top.
All in all, then, Penney could be forgiven for feeling pleased with himself, 18 months after taking the reins of a squad still reeling from the departures of the bulk of the 2006 and 2008 Heineken Cup-winning sides.
In McGahan’s last campaign alone, in 2011-12, injuries cut short the careers of Jerry Flannery, Denis Leamy and David Wallace. John Hayes and Mick O’Driscoll had the luxury of calling time on their own careers and Lifeimi Mafi was tempted abroad. On Penney’s watch, Ronan O’Gara, Marcus Horan and Doug Howlett have reached the end of the road while Peter Stringer was deemed surplus to requirements, so by any standards, those were, and are still, some large gaps to fill.
McGahan got the ball rolling, handed Heineken Cup starts to promising talents such as Stephen Archer, Conor Murray, Tommy O’Donnell, Peter O’Mahony, Mike Sherry and Simon Zebo, all of whom have since been capped by Ireland and are now cornerstones of Penney’s plans. The incumbent has broadened the depth of experience further by given European debuts to Dave Kilcoyne, Paddy Butler, Luke O’Dea, John Ryan and Cathal Sheridan while a younger generation including Duncan Casey, James Cronin and JJ Hanrahan have also been blooded, something Penney is rightly proud of.
“That is where I get my real pleasure: to see a young guy get his opportunity and succeeding and then getting kudos from people like yourself because they are doing the job well... that is all they want to do,” Penney said this week. “They want to be respected as a rugby person. It is a great joy to see those sorts of people coming through. My view on young guys or guys that show promise, often it’s just the opportunity that they need to kick on and I think back on my coaching career, there’s very few times I’ve ever been let down by giving someone an opportunity.
“Often it takes a bit of time, if guys have certain traits, they get worked out in the end but if they’ve got the right characteristics in terms of resilience and work ethic, and they’re adaptable and malleable, then they’ll do whatever it takes to make it successful.”
Of course giving players their break is one thing, turning them into proven performers quite another and Penney has been up front from the start of his tenure about wanting to his charges to develop into free-thinking decision makers rather than being rugby automatons a coach can merely switch on and off and do his bidding.
Just a month into the job in August 2012, Penney referred to decision making and skill accuracy as: “Where the fundamental issues lie and that’s just about guys making good decisions and getting used to seeing a different picture in front of them and having the flexibility and the confidence and ultimately the self-belief to carry out the decisions based on what they’re seeing instead of being, I suppose, rote-taught in some way.”
It is Penney’s vision for his players not to have their hands held but to work it out for themselves and that has led to plenty of frustration for the head coach and supporters alike over these first 18 months. Munster may be handily placed turning into 2014 in terms of league position and Heineken Cup pool standing and there may be only three defeats in the debit column across both competitions, which points to some real progress in terms of mental strength and resilience within the squad. They are winning games that might have been lost a year ago and that is another aspect of Munster’s make-up for which Penney and his players deserve credit.
“I think there has been some growth in good areas and some younger people exposed,” he said. “I think the coaching staff are doing a fantastic job and the medical team — they are working in a way that is giving the organisation a bit of synergy and a positive outlook for the medium to long-term future.
“If you had said what is the organisation going to do after all those people left and then losing Dougie and Rog last year, ‘where to now?’... but nobody has even mentioned their names.
“So the kids that have come in and people working behind the scenes to get them their experience and the guys who have taken over those big shoes are creating their own paths, which is pleasing.”
What has not been satisfactory to many, however, has been the manner in which Munster have played. As resilient as Penney’s side have become this season, there have been plenty of bumps in the road along the way.
There have been many standout moments, too, not least the scintillating match-winning try in Perpignan last month, finished in the dying seconds by JJ Hanrahan.
Those are the heights that can be reached but at this stage in the team’s development, they are often accompanied by some truly terrible passages of play, sometimes within minutes of each other.
Consistency of performance across 80 minutes is still a major concern, as last Friday’s first-half debacle at Ravenhill showed, when Ulster jumped into a 20-0 lead on the back of some sloppy play and unusually terrible place-kicking from fly-half Ian Keatley.
When Munster are bad, they’re downright awful. The opening Heineken Cup round defeat at Edinburgh was another case in point and even when the province has won games, there have been some pretty ugly victories. That might seem a harsh point to level at a young and injury-hit winning team that can only get better with experience but Penney does not need any sugar-coating.
Asked this week whether things were progressing to his satisfaction, the Munster head coach replied: “Performance-wise, no. We’ve got a long way to go. We’re getting some outcomes, which is great credit to the lads, because they’re working very hard and deserve to get some reward at the end of the week because they are working well. Whether we’re copping too much criticism or not, I don’t know. That’s for other people to decide, I just get along and try to do my best for this group and try to get the best out of them.”
There could have been worse outcomes to a trying first 18 months at the helm than a Heineken Cup semi-final in Penney’s debut season and his side currently occupying top spot in Pro12 and their Heineken Cup pool.
And if, as he has suggested, it may take another 18 months to truly see the fruits of his and the players’ labours, then what this group of players can achieve may be truly remarkable. For now, though, it may be better to just accept any sourness that accompanies the taste of a Munster victory.