More pain before gain for Penney

Pre-season can be tough.

While your international stars are watching from the stands, forced to put their feet up for the greater good, the replacements are being pulled from pillar to post by much stronger teams from the English Premiership unconstricted by considerations of player welfare.

So August friendlies become mismatches and poor scorelines are inevitable.

But enough about Edinburgh and their 54-3 weekend shellacking on home soil by a full-strength Northampton. Munster have some issues of their own to sort out before they head to Murrayfield next Saturday night to get the RaboDirect Pro12 campaign for 2012-13 up and running.

With a league campaign of 22 games between September and May, the running will be of the long-distance variety rather than the shorter, more explosive genre.

Yet having rebooted the Munster squad, of whom he assumed control just six weeks ago, incoming head coach Rob Penney will be aware after this three-game series of pre-season friendlies that achieving the collective objective of playing quick, intelligent, ball-in-hand rugby will bring some pain before the gain.

That is the one certain lesson learned from one win from three outings, 71 points conceded and an equal number, by Penney’s count, of unforced errors.

The 38 players he has deployed at French second division club La Rochelle (lost 31-7) and in the home games with English championship side Bristol (won 24-9) and Premiership big guns London Irish (lost 34-10) have impressed the New Zealander with their commitment to the new cause but the promised land is still some way off in the distance.

A Tomás O’Leary-inspired Irish and the boot of their fly-half Steven Shingler, gifted point-scoring opportunities throughout, brought the learning process into sharp focus last Friday night at Musgrave Park as the Exiles’ new coaching team of Brian Smith and defensive guru Shaun Edwards utilised a near full-strength Premiership side to teach a lesson to a Munster game plan still very much in the kindergarten stages.

With the serious stuff now just days away with that opening fixture in Edinburgh, Penney recognises a slight recalibration of objectives is needed this week to get his new side back on track.

“We really believe we can achieve something. It won’t happen overnight and there’s going to be some adjustments that we need to make to make sure we put ourselves in a good frame of mind and a good position to do well next week,” Penney said in the aftermath of the London Irish defeat.

“Next week’s when the rubber hits the road. We’ve still got a few days to get our ship back aligned.

“When we’re under pressure our decision-making has to improve and also we need not to have 25 unforced errors, which, on the back of 24 the previous week — we’re being masters of our own destiny in a negative way, not a positive way.”

The error count was caused in part, said the coach, by trying too hard to implement the new game plan and it was brutally punished by a London Irish outfit that denied the home side any latitude to attack them until a late consolation try from hooker Sean Henry, converted with the last kick of the game by Scott Deasy, nudged Munster into double figures.

Nor was the lack of penetration helped by some poor decision-making, particularly in terms of tactical kicking as Munster’s backs failed to exploit the gaps behind the Exiles’ flat defensive line.

Yet while that frustrated Penney, the head coach said he had found plenty of positives in a “mixed bag” of a performance.

Again, the former Canterbury coach praised the energy levels and work ethic of his new charges and gave credit to the scrum as BJ Botha, Damien Varley and Wian Du Preez at least secured one area of dominance over their English guests, with the maul also working well.

No doubt Penney will be hoping for a more settled constitution in the days ahead.


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