Space the final frontier in Penney’s enterprise
Identifying space and using it key to what the Munster coach is trying to achieve
Munster have looked more comfortable recently with the changed game under Rob Penney but the weeks ahead, starting with today’s meeting with arch-rivals Leinster, will tell us more. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Munster head coach Rob Penney speaks with Damien Varley and John Ryan during a scrum training session. Photograph: Dan Sheridan
Munster head coach Rob Penney and manager Niall O’Donovan watch the All-Ireland hurling final replay before last week’s Rabo Pro12 match against the Dragons. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
What to make of Munster? Last season, having finished sixth and a dozen points outside the Pro12 play-offs, they took on Harlequins and Clermont away in the Heineken Cup and came within a score of reaching the final, suggesting the old Euro fires burned strongly as ever.
This season, there has been evidence of the players becoming more comfortable and confident with the changed game under Rob Penney. After they hit the ground running in their opening game at home to Edinburgh, they backed that up with another bonus point win away to Zebre, some of their 14 tries to date (conceding five) impressively executed.
Locks haven’t been taking the ball in ill-fitting wingers’ roles and stepping or passing the ball over the touchline. Indeed, as eye-catching as some of the tries has been the degree to which they’ve stopped running out of pitch and allowing the opposition use the touchline as their friend defensively, a recurring and irritating feature of last season’s teething stages under Penney.
Yet there was also the second-half implosion in Treviso, and the failure to put the Dragons to the sword last week. In truth, for all the encouraging signs, they are scoring around about par for the course, with 14 points from four games.
These are, of course, early days in the season, but Penney and everyone else will have a far better idea where this Munster team are at after this game against Leinster.
But the Munster players do look altogether more comfortable and confident in pursuing more of a ball-in-hand game and using the width of the pitch.
“I think so,” says Penney, guardedly, “which is exciting for everybody in the group.
“We’re miles away off where we’re potentially able to get to. We’ve got some really good young athletes in this group who are still trying to find their way as footballers and intertwined with that I’m trying to challenge them in other areas, and while I say me, our coaching group of Simon Mannix, Ian Costello and Anthony Foley are all trying to grow them.
“But I think the groundwork that was done last year and the foundations that have been put in place are going to allow this group to really grow and be really competitive for the next period of time, whatever that may be. There’s a core group there that have really good futures.”
The Penney coaching ticket has sought to add a few Canterburyesque strings to Munster’s bow, which has required all 15 players to become more acquainted with the ball in their hands, in different areas of the pitch than some of them would have been used to, which has obliged them to improve their handling skills and decision-making on the ball.
All of them have had to become “Spaceseekers”.
Where the space is
“That’s it in a nutshell,” says Penney. “It’s about identifying where the space is and then having the skills to put the ball where you see that space, where it’s identified.
“Whether you’re kicking it, or running it, or passing it, that’s the fundamental basis behind it all, and having the framework that allows you to hopefully expose defensive frailties.
“So you’ve got to be able to have a skills set in most of your players, but take, for example, Owen Franks, ” says Penney, citing the example of the Crusaders and All Blacks prop, “not everybody has to have the skills, but your key people need to have the vision and the ability to see the space, and be good decision-makers.”