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!