With the minimum of fuss, Munster have found their man and though their choice of Rob Penney may raise eyebrows in some quarters, the New Zealander appears to be quite a catch.
The two-time Heineken Cup champions have given 48-year-old Penney the task of getting Munster a seat back at European rugby’s top table having yesterday appointed the former Canterbury head coach to a similar role, starting this summer as successor to Australia-bound Tony McGahan.
The move, on a two-year contract, is subject to Penney securing a valid work permit and then the Kiwi will start work with Anthony Foley continuing as forwards coach.
Foley was favourite to succeed his coaching mentor McGahan since the Australian announced his decision in February to take up a coaching coordinator role with the Wallabies this summer. Yet having interviewed the former Munster captain along with ex-All Blacks captain Tana Umaga, it was Penney who impressed the Munster chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald and his selection panel most, and their choice was ratified by the IRFU.
There will be sympathy for Foley that he has missed out on the top job but Munster’s players and supporters will be relieved that he has been kept in the fold and that he appears to remain the heir apparent.
Penney’s background is, like Foley’s, that of a number 8 turned forwards coach, and it is he who will have the big decisions to make for the next two years, starting with choice of coaches to work alongside Foley. Changes are expected and Jason Holland, for one, is understood to be preparing to leave his role as backs coach.
As for Penney, having been reluctantly released from his contract at Canterbury, where he was head coach of the provincial side for six years, winning the ITM Cup national provincial title for the last four years in a row, there is still one piece of unfinished business. So before joining Munster in mid-July, he will coach the defending world champion New Zealand Under 20 side at next month’s IRB Junior World Championship in South Africa.
The knock against Penney is that he does not have a Super Rugby head coaching role on his CV but then again, neither did Joe Schmidt when he pitched up at Leinster for the 2010-11 campaign and that has not turned out too badly since.
Penney’s supporters also maintain he has been unlucky in being overlooked for three or four such positions in the past and he was as recently as two weeks ago linked with the seemingly imminent vacancy in Auckland, where Pat Lam appears to be the lame-duck coach of the misfiring Blues.
Former Canterbury and New Zealand centre Casey Laulala believes Munster have got the right man. Laulala, who won an NPC title with Penney in 2009, will join the province this summer from Cardiff Blues and he took to Twitter yesterday to laud his former and future head coach.
“Rob Penny (sic) will be great. He’ll turn things around. Full of ideas,” Laulala commented and later posted: “He’ll do an amazing job.”
It is clear Canterbury will miss Penney with their RFU chief executive Hamish Riach saying of the man who also served as a lineout coach to Robbie Deans during the Crusaders’ 2005 Super 12 title success: “Rob has been a great servant for Canterbury rugby. We are sorry to lose a talented coach, but this is a fantastic opportunity for him and we wish him all the best.”
But for now, it is Riach’s contemporary at Munster who can be pleased at having found what he feels is the right man. “We conducted a thorough search to find a replacement for Tony McGahan and were delighted with the calibre of candidates,” Garret Fitzgerald said. “Rob Penney’s record speaks for itself and we look forward to welcoming him.”
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