Returning Munster to the pinnacle of European rugby is the challenge new coach Rob Penney has set himself.
“That was something that really spun my wheels,” he said last night.
“When you think about European rugby, you think about two or three clubs and Munster’s one of them. When the opportunity was presented to me to apply for the role, it didn’t take long for me to jump at the opportunity.”
The 48-year-old will begin his two-year contract next season, taking over from Tony McGahan who leaves in the summer to take up an assistant coaching role with Robbie Deans’ Wallabies.
It’s been four long years since Munster tasted success in Europe, and Penney is looking forward to ushering in a new wave of talent in the province.
“I understand Munster have had their disappointments in the last two or three years, and the challenge of getting a great side back to those great days once again was something that really spun my wheels,” he explained.
“It’s not going to happen overnight but there’s great people in the Munster area and enough passionate people in the organisation to turn it around quickly… and put this side to the top of the tree where it belongs.
“There’s been a real mature cohort of people that have come through the organisation over the last six or seven years and a lot of them are gone now so the expectation is on these young blokes to step up.”
The 48-year-old was one of three interviewees for the top job along with ex-All Black Tana Umaga and current forwards coach Anthony Foley. Umaga lost out with Penney and Foley now set to form a coaching partnership for the next two campaigns. Current backs coach Jason Holland is moving on at the end of the season, but Penney was not in a position to discuss anything further on that development although he did reveal that some “exciting additions” are likely to be added to the coaching set-up within the next few weeks.
“Anthony [Foley] is obviously a critical part of the coaching mix,” said Penney on his new assistant. “I had a good telephone conversation with him this morning [Friday] and we discussed one or two things, but obviously the critical thing is that we build a really good relationship because I see him as the critical link between what I can potentially bring to the group and the realities of playing in a European competition.
“Hopefully that relationship will grow and flourish and we can support each other.”
Penney sees huge similarities between his homeland of Canterbury and Munster. In fact, during his research on his new club he found that both provinces were founded in the same year, 1879.
“Bit spooky, that,” he joked. “I like to describe the people in Canterbury as blue-collar workers. We’re just happy to get our hands dirty, get in amongst it, and do what we have to do to get the job done. From talking to other Munster people, they feel that attitude of getting stuck in really fits in with them as well. There’s a really nice synergy there.”
Penney will also be linking up with former Canterbury centre Casey Laulala who has signed from the Cardiff Blues.
“He’s a fantastic bloke and will be a great signing for Munster,” said Penney on the fleet-footed centre. “He’s got a massive amount of rugby knowledge and a great work ethic and he’ll be a real addition to that outside back contingent no doubt.”
Declan Kidney’s Ireland team are set for a gruelling three-test tour of New Zealand in June with the second test taking place in the newly renovated Rugby League Park stadium in Christchurch — the first test match in the region since the devastating earthquakes which claimed the lives of 185 people in February of last year.
Penney will be missing from Christchurch that week, however. He’ll be in South Africa looking after the New Zealand U20 side at the Junior World Cup tournament before travelling to Ireland to take up his new role.
“It’s a real shame because I would have loved the opportunity to catch up with some of the Munster boys,” he said. “I’ll be watching [the test match] closely on television and hopefully touching base with them in Munster when they’ve returned home.”
It’s the beginning for a new era for Penney and for Munster. The Kiwi is not a household name, but then again neither were Michael Cheika or Joe Schmidt when they took up their roles at Leinster and things didn’t work out too badly for them.
“I know Munster traditionally has had a way of playing that is really physically orientated, robust and strangles the life out of the opposition,” said the new Munster boss.
“I’d like to challenge these boys with that and see where we can go with it. I’m really privileged to have worked in the Canterbury organisation for nine years having played here for a decade. It’s been wonderful for me.
“To step out of that organisation, and into one as prestigious as Munster… is really humbling.”
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