Hoping that the Penney drops for Munster
Should Munster fail to qualify from Pool One after tomorrow’s lunch-time showdown with Racing Metro it means, this time, that no miracle has occurred on sacred ground.
The mortal wounds were inflicted in October and December. The focus will inevitably switch to the players’ initial and understandable blind faith in Rob Penney’s Canterbury blueprint.
It was put to Anthony Foley – who runs the lineout in Munster but defence for Ireland – this week that their current perilous position is mainly due to the failure to build upon a lead that was so impressively erected in Paris in round one.
A day when Paul O’Connell took the field. “That and then trying to play too much rugby in Vicarage Road,” agreed Foley, in reference to their second European defeat on the road.
“When you look at what Saracens tried to do to us; went to two in the lineout and kicked the leather off it. Even their try came from a little dabble through.
“The issue in that game for us, maybe we didn’t just tuck it up a bit more and grind out the three, six, nine (points). That and probably the last five minutes in Paris when we got ourselves into a position to win the game and unfortunately we gave them two kickable penalties and they executed that.”
Basically, at Vicarage Road Munster played to their new system. It didn’t work. Since December there was been a noticeable slump just when they were expected to have bedded in the Penney way.
So they returned to what they do best – confrontation. This is not a regression back to the Munster of pre-law changes in 2008 but something looking more like the direct approach employed under Tony McGahan whenever the going got tough.
Munster have, bar one season under McGahan, qualified from their pool, but it has been five long years of change since they last conquered Europe.
“In this group, so far, we’ve been in a position to win all five games,” Foley continued. “You think back to last year, we were 20-all in Castres and two points down in Thomond Park against Northampton and we managed to get two drop goals. There isn’t a massive difference from last year when we managed to get through the group stages unbeaten.
“If we win on Sunday and get a quarter-final it will be looked upon as success, just as it was last year.”
The Munster way
Penney must be sick hearing about how things used to be done in Munster. An honest on-the-record appraisal of the Cork-Limerick dual training centres would also be interesting.
There was no sign of him at the media gathering in Limerick last Wednesday or his favourite assistant, the former Racing coach Simon Mannix.
Penney would better understand the pressure that comes with a win-at-all-cost mentality if he ever experienced a run of poor results back home.
Problem is he hasn’t, having arrived with a track record of four National Provincial Championship titles in a row.
And now, after losing 17-6 to Cardiff in Limerick on January 5th, the natives are getting restless. Add in the decision to win in Edinburgh by kicking penalties, rather than chasing the bonus point try from the off, and the man is presumably being told about the miracle match at every turn.
Donnacha Ryan, a central figure in both Munster and Ireland camps this season, hears the chatter as well.
“You said the Cardiff game, obviously we were very disappointing from a squad point of view altogether, having gone over there and won then not performing to the best of our capabilities at home in front of our home crowd which is very disappointing.
“As regards external stuff from the squad, we try not dwell too much on what’s been said outside because if you start reading and listening to everything that’s been said and written, you’d have a very short week.”
So, it is safe to assume, the original transformation of Canterbury-style rugby, which utilises as much of the pitch as possible, remains on track?
“Absolutely,” said Ryan. “Rob has put in some great tools for us to play with and given us a licence there to play and you know gel it with the stuff we’ve always been doing so we’re not doing anything any different to before. It’s really educating guys on how to develop their skill base and it’s a fantastic way to play and we’re delighted.”
Listening to Ryan, it’s hard to understand what all the fuss is about. Penney is merely transporting the formula that delivered the most successful team in the most successful rugby nation on earth.
The problem, it seems, is miracles. And the lingering shadow of legends.
None of the old leadership group will feature tomorrow now that Ronan O’Gara is suspended.
Still, for Ryan, a practical man as ever there was one, tomorrow is a straight forward mission.
“We’ve really got to focus on building a system and not doing silly stuff. Not doing one-off runners and losing the ball in the breakdown and things like that so it’s basically tighten things up and having more control when we have the ball in attack and making it count in their half.”
So, today, presumably the Tipperary lock will be hunched over a television set, hoping that team-mates he’ll soon be joining in Carton House don’t play to their usual standard against Exeter?
“I probably won’t. I’ll be trying to keep a relaxed frame of mind and stay focused on what we’ve got to do on Sunday.
“I half wanted to watch the matches last weekend but the other hand didn’t want get wound up so I think it’s important to remain cool and realise that we’ve got to be as tuned into our job on Sunday as we can be and obviously we’ll have more of a focus on what we’ll have to do on the Sunday morning.
“It’s quite ironic that people are giving out about Sunday games but in this case it’s quite fortunate for us.”
Munster may require four tries, even five, but either way they need new leaders and new heroes to stand up.
Round Six Great Munster Escapes
Northampton 36 Munster 51
Munster shock Northampton as Simon Zebo confirms his rising-star status with a hat-trick at Franklin’s Garden to ensure they top the pool with six wins from six.
Munster 19-3 Wasps
Munster make the quarter-final for a 10th straight campaign, ending the 2007 champions title defence in the process. They finished top of the pool level on 19 points with Clermont but progress due to a superior head to head record against the French.
Munster 31-9 Sale
A last minute try from David Wallace, Munster’s fourth, brings this result close to ‘Miracle Match’ standards as Sale only needed a losing bonus point to top the pool. The sides finished level on 23 points. Both went into the quarter-final, with Munster as pool winners in the season they finally became European champions.
Munster 33-6 Gloucester
The Miracle Match. The tension valve wasn’t fully released when John Kelly got over for the fourth try in injury-time as Ronan O’Gara still needed to kick the conversion to leave the pool in a three-way tie, with Perpignan on top, but Gloucester demoted to third on points difference (they were tied for 14 tries apiece).