Munster entering key period with Penney’s extended goodbye and Foley’s succession
Foley in tricky situation but winning, starting on Saturday, would make things easier
Rob Penney (left) will want to end his tenure on a winning note before handing over to Munster favourite Anthony “Axel” Foley. Photograph: Inpho
When Roy Keane came in to address the Munster squad before the Sale game in 2006, he answered questions for us on numerous topics. One that has stuck in my mind was when he was asked who was the most professional of the players he’d played with and why. He thought about it and came up with an answer that not many of us would have expected – Laurent Blanc.
He said that in Blanc’s final season at United he was 36 years old and wasn’t getting his place in the team. He hardly played after Christmas and knew he was on his way out at the end of the season no matter what happened. But still, he prepared for every game and every training session as though he was at the start of his career. United won the league and Blanc retired a champion.
The next couple of months are huge for Munster and if they come through them as well as they can, it’ll be because Rob Penney did a Laurent Blanc on it. He’s out the door at the end of the season and while it’s not entirely fair on him, how the next 10 weeks turn out will probably decide how he is remembered in Munster.
Sometimes when a coach is coming to the end of his reign, he will have enough credit in the bank. The verdict will already be in. But that isn’t the case with Penney. I don’t know him all that well but I like him and I’ll be sad to see him leave.
Munster are more consistent under him now and the improvement since last season is there for all to see. But if he ends the season without a trophy, Munster fans most likely won’t be kind when they reflect on his time. There is no doubt progress has been made and that Anthony Foley will be taking over a squad that is in better shape than when Penney arrived. But if they don’t win the Heineken or the Rabo, it could taint him a little.
As I say, that’s probably unfair but it’s reality. These competitions are so competitive and winning them outright is so difficult. But fans demand success and they feel, rightly, that any transition period is over now. The majority of the team that will line out against Leinster on Saturday have played more than 50 games for Munster at this stage. Nobody can use a transition period as an excuse or reason any more.
I always assumed one of the main reasons Penney got the job in the first place was because he had such a good record of bringing young players through in New Zealand, smoothing that pathway to Super Rugby and on to the All Blacks. I think he’s been good on that at Munster with the likes of Tommy O’Donnell, Dave Foley, Dave Kilcoyne, JJ Hanrahan and more making real progress in his time there. It’s no wonder that the younger players especially have been vocal about how sorry they are to see him leave.
This can be a strange situation for a player, especially when the incoming head coach is already at the club. You have to be careful that there is no confusion with messages coming from different coaches. Who do you try to impress? Do you try to catch the eye of the guy who’s in the hot seat now or the one who will be there in 10 weeks?