Pressure now on Penney and players to finish the job they started this season

MOVING ON: Rob Penney was expected to take up the option of a third year to extend the two-year contract he signed in 2012.

It was fun while it lasted and his departure will be keenly felt by some but having been spurned by Rob Penney, you can be sure Munster Rugby will dust itself down, pick itself up and carry on regardless.

Just as players come and go in modern professional rugby, so too now do coaches and the more of them you recruit from overseas the more likely you are to lose them the minute a better offer comes along. And the teams that employ them find someone else to fill the void and the cycle begins again.

In Munster’s case, the cycle is going round a lot quicker, with Penney’s departure this summer making his tenure as head coach the shortest in the province’s history in the professional era. No-one will blame Penney for putting his family first and doing what is right for them and yesterday’s press release from Munster was certainly at pains to point out the New Zealander, and his compatriot backs coach Simon Mannix, would be leaving with the best wishes of the province, even if there was sorrow for those he will leave behind.

“When we reach the end of the season Rob will leave with our thanks and best wishes for the future,” Munster chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald said. “Rob has been a very positive influence on this Munster squad and management and we are disappointed to see him go as we had hoped that he would fulfil his third season. In developing the squad he has highlighted the strength and depth of the Munster panel, with the competition for places as high as ever.”

That Penney is leaving at all is unfathomable given the positives outlined by Fitzgerald. Munster are top of the league and have a juicy home Heineken Cup quarter-final to look forward to in April while the former Canterbury head coach has fast-tracked many of the next generation of stars from academy to senior status at a rapid rate of knots and not been let down in the process.

There were hiccups along the way, of course, and he took plenty of flak for what people perceived as his efforts to impose an “un-Munster-like” game plan when performances went awry, as they did more than a couple of times during his debut season.

Yet the introduction of some pragmatism saw to it that lessons were learned by players and management alike and the first Penney campaign finished with a Heineken Cup semi-final.

The future looked bright and the progress made under his command has continued to bear fruit this season, Penney’s confidence in a new dawn for Munster after the post-2008 transition and retirements such that a rake of young players such as Simon Zebo, Conor Murray, Tommy O’Donnell, Dave Kilcoyne and their new captain (another Penney masterstroke) Peter O’Mahony committed their immediate futures to the province.

Penney was expected to follow suit, and in December began talking of his wish to complete what he believes is a “three-year project” by taking up the option of a third year to extend the two-year contract he signed in 2012.

Even as recently as Tuesday, he was talking up the prospects of him signing the one-year extension, with the Irish Examiner reporting on Wednesday: “When quizzed on the matter yesterday Penney replied: ‘We’re close. Everything hasn’t been finalised yet. Things are progressing’.”

Boy did they progress. Within 72 hours of that statement being made, Munster were announcing Penney and Mannix’s departure. The search for a replacement will already be under way, with forwards coach Anthony Foley the favourite to land the job he hoped to get once Tony McGahan stood down in 2012. Penney got the nod instead and former captain Foley has two years further coaching experience with the added advantage of offering the promise of in-house continuity, and a probable running-mate in skills coach Ian Costello.

Not that they are a shoo-in. Munster went outside the tent before and with a reputation as a history-making European heavy-hitter resonating around the rugby world, there are sure to be other overseas coaches coveting a stint in the hot seat.

That’s certainly what Paul O’Connell thinks, although the pressure is now on Penney and his players to finish the job they started this season.

“We’ve done great to get a home quarter-final,” O’Connell said yesterday, “there was a lot of chat before I left about the group that was there and they had a big role to play in the next five, six weeks in their Rabo form and I don’t think Rob will take his foot off the gas one bit, the fact that he’s leaving.

“I only found out about it this morning, I haven’t given it a lot of thought but my mind is firmly focused on what we do here (with Ireland) and there is good people to deal with that back home.”

O’Connell will be hoping they will be as clear-minded about appointing the right successor as he is about leading Ireland into Six Nations battle this weekend.

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