Penney leaves the building blocks for a brighter future

So all that is left are the handshakes and farewells, as Rob Penney departs Munster for a new coaching adventure in Japan.

Penney leaves the building blocks for a brighter future

Penney, of course, wanted to stay but opted job security with the NTT Shining Arcs than the one-year contract extension on offer from the Irish province.

That there will be no silverware to show for his two-year tenure since leaving his native Canterbury in New Zealand to replace Tony McGahan in the summer of 2012 will mark the Penney era out as one of disappointment, not least for the man himself. Yet beyond the cold stark print of the history books and the lack of gold leaf on the Munster roll of honour between 2012 and 2014, the exiting head coach should leave for the Land of the Rising Sun confident there is also a bright new dawn awaiting those he will leave behind.

Are Munster in better shape than when Penney took over?

Undoubtedly.

He did, after all, inherit a squad that had been hammered by the Ospreys in a league semi-final and humiliated at Thomond Park, not once but twice in Europe, first by Ulster in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals and then by Harlequins in the Amlin Challenge Cup semis, the ageing players just that little bit too old, the youngster just a little too green.

The retirements of the old guard and the development of the bright young things would have happened anyway but Penney can certainly take the credit for finessing some of that raw talent into Test-quality playing potential.

Predecessor Tony McGahan gave Conor Murray, Simon Zebo and Peter O’Mahony their starts and they made instant impacts and one could argue that particularly gifted trio would have succeeded no matter the coach.

Penney, though, has backed a broader base of young talent, underlining the very reason given for his appointment on the back of a CV featuring stints as the New Zealand Under-20s coach and involvement with the Crusaders as Development Squad coach.

Munster chief executive greeted Penney as “good person with excellent rugby knowledge and experience as a head coach dealing with young players” and the Kiwi lived up to that, late blossoming second row Dave Foley just this week praising the departing head coach, who gave the lock more caps this season than in the 25-year-old’s previous four seasons combined.

“We have had a few tough chats, I suppose, up to this year, but he has been a huge influence on my career,” Foley said. “He was ultimately the one who gave me the nod this season, given me a lot of game time. He has been really important to my career.”

The progression of Foley is just one example of Penney’s knack for instilling belief in an inexperienced player. Front rowers Dave Kilcoyne, James Cronin, Stephen Archer and Duncan Casey are others while Cathal Sheridan, JJ Hanrahan, Ivan Dineen and Ronan O’Mahony have all also been given their heads and not let their province down in the process.

Buying into Penney’s more expansive, less systematic and heads-up rugby has further unleashed the potential. And after some painful teething problems last season, when the sight of second rows out on the wing caused so much angst on the terraces and the province failed to reach the league play-offs for the first time, the wide wide game has been modified and one step backward has produced two steps forward this season, the Rabo record showing more points, tries and bonus points than in 2010-11, when they topped the table and went on to win the final.

Could Munster have done better in these past two seasons? Of course, and Penney will be the first to tell you so. Two European semis achieved through epic performances in the previous round, have proven a bridge too far and the bad luck of successive draws in France should not mask the fact that against both Clermont Auvergne in 2013 and last month against Toulon, Munster were in an excellent position to progress and failed to do so.

That will be a source of as many sleepless nights in Japan.

Time will be favourable to Rob Penney, though. Just as Declan Kidney won a Grand Slam in 2009 with the players Eddie O’Sullivan brought to the brink of success with three Triple Crowns, and just as Kidney’s Ireland mark II crossed the Rubicon with Joe Schmidt this year, Penney will be seen as the bridge that will help his successor Anthony Foley deliver success again to Munster.

That will be Penney’s legacy. A squad believing its own abilities, comfortable mixing it with Europe’s elite, and a worthy successor ready to take them to the next stage. Over to you Anthony.

Penney’s Munster record

Appointed head coach May 2 2012

Two-year contract to end of 2013-14

Overall competitive record: P61 W37 D1 L23

2012-13

Heineken Cup semi-finalists

Pool - w/Racing, Edinburgh, Saracens W4 L2 qualified as best runner-up, 8th seed

Quarter-final – beat Harlequins away

Semi-final– lost to ASM Clermont Auvergne in Montpellier

RaboDirect Pro12, 6th P22 W11 D1 L10 (Pts 442-389, T46-34; Bonus T 4 Bonus L 4 Pts 54

2013-14

Heineken Cup semi-finalists

Pool w/Edinburgh, Gloucester, Perpignan W5 L1 qualified as pool winner, 4th seed

Quarter-final – beat Toulouse home

Semi-final – lost to Toulon in Marseille

RaboDirect Pro12 semi-finalists

RaboDirect Pro12, 3rd P22 W16 D0 L6 (Pts 538-339, T56-27; Bonus T 7 Bonus L 3 Pts 74

Semi-final – lost to Glasgow away

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