Two Sides of the Coin

I’m the boss, I’m the gaffer and at the end of the day what I say goes.

I like Rob Penney, I think it’s hard not to. The press like him, which is important because their portrayal of him colours the public’s perception. Penney gives good copy and is enthusiastically positive, most of the time.

The few times that he’s not are after matches that his team has lost. Then he’s candid about how things went. “We didn’t bring anything. For some reason we were flat. We lacked the intensity and physicality that we’ve had in previous weeks. The Ospreys did really well and beat us up.”

After Leinster, Penney reckoned that  “The main downside was our error rate. We coughed up too much ball and missed too many tackles at crucial times. That didn’t let the pressure we were building manifest itself into points. We were able to build pressure near the end because we were able to hold onto the ball and build it up through a few phases.

“We weren’t able to do that earlier in the game. I thought the players adapted well and got a bit of belief, which was good for us. It was a tight game, nine points, but really disappointing. Although there were a number of poor defensive elements in our game, the disappointing thing for me was our inability to build pressure when we had the ball. That is an area that we focused on this week so that is why I’m a bit disappointed with that aspect of our game.”

And that makes me like him. He hasn’t come in and rah-rah’ed about a crappy performance, nor has he said nothing of note on a constant basis like certain other coaches. You get the impression that Penney has a very firm idea of what he wants his team to do and there doesn’t seem any question about who is in charge.

For all this certainty, I don’t think that Penney is sold on one particular style. Joe Schmidt has made a habit of picking as ‘away’ Heineken Cup team, based around a heavier pack and greater defensive solidity and a ‘home’ Heineken Cup team, capable of putting some zip on proceedings. Will Penney do the same in his first two Heineken Cup weekends and what will it mean for Munster’s season?

It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Kidney insisted on O’Gara getting game time from the start against Leinster. Keatley was on the pitch on the stroke of the hour which has the hallmarks of a deal. Munster looked better when Keatley was on the pitch and throughout the match they played a fast, wide ranging style of football. O’Gara is capable of that but it’s not his instinct.

Does Penney’s quote, above, about not being able to hold onto the ball and build it up through a few phases earlier in the game, reflect some frustration about their attacking limitations earlier in the match? Or am I just reading into it what I want?

The style of rugby he wants to play seems a lot like Joe Schmidt’s. New Zealand rugby owes a lot to a few evolutionary trends. Fred Allen’s team in the 1960’s used centre Ian MacRae to get over the gain line in order to set up multiple phase possessions designed to create space wide out on the pitch. It seems commonplace now but it was a big deal then. Laurie Mains’ 1995 team ushered in the professional era with a high demand placed on ball skills and fitness. A generation of players who grew up playing with and against Auckland’s ‘A’ team and were reared on tales of Brian Lochore’s All Blacks are now calling the shots and they believe the game should be played with a certain emphasis.

We’ve made the point before that Schmidt’s Leinster is comparable to the Spanish football team – they do a lot of defending by not giving possession away and are content to go through phases from deep in the pitch rather than kicking the ball away. They can’t be too predictable though, there needs to be different options available in support if the decision is made to run.

Schmidt mentioned what he saw in the Munster midfield in the lead up to the recent derby: “I really like the way they are using (Casey) Laulala and (Keith) Earls to both threaten and link and offer opportunities to guys wider out.”

That seems to be the versatility that Schmidt wants and it would surprise me to find out that Penney is much different. How and when he uses Keatley/O’Gara and Downey/Laulala/Earls will be very interesting. That’s not to mention Hanrahan, who must surely start getting a look between the Heineken Cup doubles.

The final question for today is how will this emphasis from two highly capable coaches steeped in the Kiwi doctrine impact on an Irish squad with no New Zealanders in the main group? If O’Gara isn’t first choice for both Heineken Cup games, will he still make Kidney’s squad? Where will Kidney want to use Earls if Zebo and Tommy Bowe are fit, in form and playing regularly on the wing? Will an Irish team desperate for world ranking points play the once-off cup match rugby beloved of Declan Kidney or will something grander be implemented in a season of relatively few internationals? The season is in full swing now!

7 thoughts on “Two Sides of the Coin

  1. Missed opportunity to talk about Anscombe. It’s three provinces with Kiwi coaches and there’s a change going on that compliments the above discussion. I thought Ulster showed how to do it against Munster and Connacht. Dummy runners who held the defensive line and ensured that there was space wide. Munster are trying to do the same thing, Ulster are better at it.

    The other reason to discuss Ulster is the big surprise: Nick Williams. He’s a player who everybody loved to hate but the Ulster fans have recognised someone who’s playing well. He’s not perfect, but he has a skillset and he can be effective when he can be brought to bear. It’s been eye opening to see them sweating over his fitness. I think McGahan recognised his abilities when he got him, but he couldn’t fit him into the system properly, i.e. he didn’t get with his pack partners. Schmidt is happy to use Auva’a too (form permitting).

    I find the building pressure quote from Penney (I hadn’t heard it before) very instructive. It’s something that Munster had always been good at until the bottom fell out of structured phase play. Good defences have probably ended structured pods of that ilk for a long time.

    It’s probably only fair to expect O’Gara to adapt more slowly than Keatley. Aside from the disruption/distractions of the international game, it’s also a bigger transition for him. Keatley is on his 3rd province, and played a different game in each of them, he’s had to do a lot of adapting and he’s had more time since Penney came in. O’Gara had O’Sullivan and the similar Kidney since 2001 to present for Ireland. Munster have been fairly consistent in what they play: Kidney leading the way for his assistant coach McGahan (continuity, continuity, continuity).

    O’Gara has never had to deal with a major shift in rugby philosophy before, maybe it just takes time. I think it makes sense for Penney to take that chance rather than discard him too rashly.

  2. Mole, ronk, brilliant contributions. The debate so far has mostly focused on attacking principles. That is fine by me, I’m happy for a philosophy to be 60% how do we attack? 40% defend. Still…..defence remains 50% of the game (even if you do use ball retention as a defensive strategy). This whole discussion in my opinion therefore is closely related to the earls at 13 debate.

    Playing rog at 10, earls at 13 is a problem. It isn’t a strong point for rog obviously and despite earls having good technique and strength he is light and is gonna be light and a target for the opposition to tie in defenders. He has to punch above his weight all the time. It has been possible to hide, or mind one player in the defensive line, but it is getting harder to do. Especially with a new back row finding its feet…. and under the new “use it” rule where teams are speeding up phases, even if they don’t want to!

    Seemed to me Schmidt targeted them both at the weekend and for a 15 minute spell after half time munster couldn’t get the ball back. Where am I going?….if you play ogara, you need to start with (certainly away from home) downey-lualala, with earls, hurley, zebo, howlett, Jones fighting it out. I think that would be the makings of their best team. When earls has played well at 13, against the dragons for example, it has been from depth and wide…..could he be more a full back than a 13 or even winger?

    If you are playing earls at 13, you would probably need keatley to start at 10. Long term, JJH looks like a natural fit to penny’s game, so all in all it looks a nice problem to have, where they can all contribute and grow, without discarding any of them. You’ve got an experienced guy who is still your best 10, but for home games where you want to be a bit more expansive you’ve got the heir apparent keatley at 10, with earls playing his favoured position and where you can try to give the exciting young prospect a cameo off the bench.

    The situation with Ireland is different (I posted on WoC about this but it came up as anon by mistake, ro_murph made a good challenge on it, I hope its ok if I answer him here). Sexton is now first choice 10. Madigan had played some good heineken stuff and his growth chart is almost vertical, with (in my opinion) a very high ceiling. He should now get the nod in green. Even if sexton was injured, Ireland would arguably have more to gain in the long term by bringing in keatley or Jackson, than they would gain in the short term by having rog back in harness. I am a self confessed huge admirer of rog and think it is a shame shaggy Hayes etc retired without the opportunity of a farewell from the fans. It is rare to get such an opportunity. Makes you start wondering about a fixture in Thomond in November…..

  3. I’d drop Radge out of Ireland altogether at this stage.

    He’s borderline for Munster first 15 at this point*. So what is he going to be like in 2015? An option for Ireland? I don’t think so. By the end of the season, he might even get it tight to make it onto the Munster bench.

    We have younger, promising options in Jackson, Hanrahan, Keatley and Madigan. Why persist with someone who is already limited and almost visibly becoming even more limited with each passing game?

    *Personally, I thought in the Ulster game Munster got worse with ROG at 10, against the Ospreys I thought they looked better when Keatley came on and same against Leinster. Father time waits for no man… not even a ligind like Radge.

  4. Interesting musings mole…although I would take issue with the implication that Zebo is the best option on the wing for Ireland if it is decided not to play Earls there. I can think of 3/4 players I would prefer to see there before him (and, of them, only Fitzgerald is injured). He is fast, has good feet and seems to be a decent finisher…but his buts (flakiness in all areas of defense) are too many and too important for him to be trusted as an Irish international winger just yet. He may well get there very soon but he is not there yet.

  5. Sorry for the fact this is a little off subject but from watching the young players recently and reading the praise they have rightfully been receiving I cannot help but feel Duncan Williams has not been getting quite as much as he should. Every time I have seen him play this season he’s looked fairly at ease without ever doing anything out of the ordinary and i have been quite impressed. Would just like to hear what other people think on the subject and indeed the Munster fans and mole who would know more than me.

  6. Penney will have an exacting doctrine set in stone regarding how he wants Munster to play the game. Its the Canterbury way. That’s how they seem to effortlessly blood new rookies into their sides without missing a beat. Canterbury value systems and structures over individual talent.

    Great site by the way mate. I’ve already added it to my favourites.

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