Penney drops on growing pains


Despite his side being in rebuilding mode, Munster’s coach still oozes positivity, writes GAVIN CUMMISKEY

IT WAS Wallace Reyburn’s 1967 tour log, The Unsmiling Giants that best conjures up the image of a Kiwi “loosie.”

The central characters are Goliathan backrow forwards like Brian Lochore or heroic scavengers Ian Kirkpatrick and Kel Tremain. And Pinetree himself, Colin Meads.

Looking down at him on the Aviva Stadium pitch yesterday, Rob Penney looked like one of those men; a battered hulk, bred on New Zealand’s rugged terrain. Unsmiling. Hard-nosed.

Then he speaks and such presumptions instantly fade. We heard Penney radiates positive vibes, but the disarming nature of Munster’s head coach at yesterday’s ERC launch still surprised.

Intimidating he is not. But having watched Canterbury’s provincial pack ploughing all comers in recent seasons, the initial feeling was he must be playing the smart media game; keeping true feelings for the paddock.

Of all the army of Southern Hemisphere coaches to land in Ireland, Michael Cheika perfected the art of the dual (public and private) persona.

But maybe Penney is a different breed. Maybe he simply isn’t one for negative rhetoric. When expecting the flash of fangs there comes whispered encouragement.

Either way, Munster training this week would be ideal fly-on-the-wall viewing. You see, the Ospreys eight cracked open the new wave of Munster granite last Saturday.

“I don’t have any excuses at all, but Ospreys by the end of the game had seven guys out of the Welsh Grand Slam team on the field. I think we had five guys commencing their Rabo experience but that experience was another layer of experience that we are going to grow from and get better from.

“I’m blown away by the level of talent that we have available to us,” Penney said, emanating positivity. “We just got to put older heads on younger shoulders to get the performances we know this team is capable of.

“Really, the biggest handbrake is within them . . .”

He was still talking when interrupted by a fresh question. If irritated, it didn’t show. Has it come to the stage where the Paul O’Connells and BJ Bothas must return given the shortfall in physicality at Liberty Stadium? Point being if Munster don’t front up in October the European campaign will be in ruins.

“You’re not wrong. You can’t replace experience through giving opportunities at training. You can only get it on the field. The names you have mentioned are critically important heading into this phase. We just got to make sure they are in good space mentally and physically to be able to contribute the way we know they can when the time comes.”

Penney is pushed further. To hell with their condition, the old guard must return, no?

“I think there is some really good reasoning and rationale behind what you are saying and you are probably not wrong in some sense. That’s the dilemma we’re facing at this very critical stage of our campaign; drip feeding the internationals back.

“We want to ensure when someone like Paulie comes back he is in great shape and can have a lot of rugby back to back and is able to cope with it. We don’t want to throw him in a little bit early and compromise playing for us and Ireland down the track.”

Penney mentions Ireland several times. How have you found the communication channels with the Irish management, specifically Declan Kidney?

“Wonderful. Ever since I’ve arrived here we’ve been able to have deep and meaningful discussions on all sorts of levels, on all sorts of topics. I’m really rapt with the openness.

“Part of my role is to try to help Irish rugby be a successful team on the international front. Hopefully Declan’s feeling the same, that he is able to deal with me in a really open manner and trusts what I am endeavouring to do.”

Many moons ago Connacht almost caught Leinster cold at Donnybrook. On the full-time whistle, with their deadline looming, the press pack slalomed through a disgruntled crowd towards the Bective sheds for some snap Cheika quotes. The window was open so we heard the Australian savage his players.

Then he came out to us.

What’s your assessment of that performance, Michael?

“Aw, mate, I thought we played really well in patches, lots of positives to take from it.”

That’s what the best coaches do; when the cement has yet to dry on the building blocks, he stands out front of house and fends off the hyenas.

That could be Penney’s remit for the coming months. But equally he senses the urgency.

“The whole transiting talk that has been going around the Munster group is something that we’ve got to move on from. People now have got to perform when they wear the Munster jersey.

“They have done a great job until now. I am really proud of the way the team have embraced what we are trying to do and where we are headed.

“Every week is a new challenge, every week they have to grow.”

Time to become unsmiling giants of a red hue.


Ruan Pienaar finally returns to the Ulster squad next Monday after nailing down the starting scrumhalf berth in the South Africa team during the Rugby Championship.

The Springboks have one more fixture, against New Zealand in Johannesburg on Saturday, so it remains unclear if Pienaar will be ready to feature in Ulster’s opening Heineken Cup match against Castres at Ravenhill on October 12th.

“We will assess how he is and what state his body and mind is in,” said Ulster coach Mark Anscombe, who admitted access to their marquee signing is severely restricted by Pienaars continued involvement in Test rugby.

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