Space the final frontier in Penney’s enterprise
Identifying space and using it key to what the Munster coach is trying to achieve
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.”
This does not mean abandoning traditional virtues, although at times in some of last season’s low points (the one-dimensional home defeat to Cardiff springs to mind) that appeared to be the case.
The Heineken Cup quarter-final win away to Harlequins which revitalised last season was predicated upon a potent maul, an accurate, high-intensity kick-chase game, superb work at the breakdown and the leadership of an inspired Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara.
After some astonishing, but trademark resilience in Montpellier against Clermont in the semi-final, there was a broader mix, even if ultimately little penetration, save for O’Gara locating the space via a rich variety of kicks from hand.
Nevertheless, there will be few more potent mauls than the patient drive from outside the 22 which yielded their third try away to Treviso before the implosion of the last half-hour.
“Oh, yeah, Munster has got some great components to their game that are natural to them. We want something that enhances that ability.”
Those two Heineken Cup performances, on top of qualifying from a group containing Castres, Edinburgh and Saracens, were vital for the entire Munster organisation, not least for Penney and the coaching ticket, as some kind of proof that they may be on an upward curve.
Ask Penney what he learned about his players from their knock-out performances and he says immediately: “That they are more capable than they think they are.”
The key for the players therefore is to have more confidence in themselves as a result.
“That’s it, just trying to grown confidence; grow confidence and self-belief. I’m a big believer that all of us, as young men, when we’re coming through we’re always intimidated by being exposed.
“Whether we’re hurling, or kicking a soccer ball, it’s only special individuals that can push through without external support and help, unless they’re world-class athletes.
“But most of us beaver away and we hope we’re doing well, and when a mistake happens we wonder if we’re going to be dropped next week.
“One of the biggest hindrances to any sportsman is the scrutiny that I give or you give to our athletes out on the field.
“So the ability for them to have trust in what we’re doing, and to express themselves and not be ridiculed, or frowned upon or put down once they’re under the spotlight because they make an error, to grow that self-belief.
“I go back to the Clermont game. I don’t believe we thought we could win it until half-time and then it was ‘Holy Hell, we’re in this’, and but for a couple of little things we probably could have. But that’s a learning process for young men to go through, and some of the older guys too need to embrace that.”
As he chewed on a bowl of rice and Beef Stroganoff in between media requirements, it seemed apt to suggest Munster were now entering the meat of their season.
Always timed a week out from a return to Heineken Cup action, the Munster-Leinster game is a means of fast-tracking the frontliners who’ve returned in the previous week or two, as well as acclimatising both squads to the kind of intensity they require for Europe.
It also ups the ante, of course, as a defeat to their most acute rivals a week out from Europe may not be ideal, and with first of the two league meetings being moved to Limerick, arguably this ups the ante even more for Munster.
“It is what it is,” says Penney, who admits that experiencing the Munster-Leinster matches was one of his “biggest learnings” from last season.
“What I love about the derby matches is their intensity. It’s right up there with Test rugby when the Irishmen are playing each other. It’s fantastic. It’s ferocious and it’s as good as any derby games I’ve ever been involved in back in New Zealand.
“You’ve basically got a team full of Test players in Leinster playing a team obviously with some great players in it that have some Test experience, but also some peripheral guys busting their ass trying to make the breakthrough. So I think Saturday night is really exciting.”
Next week comes Edinburgh away in their opening Heineken Cup pool game, followed by Gloucester’s first visit to Thomond Park for a decade and 11 years on from the “Miracle Match”.
With Perpignan back-to-back in December, those opening games almost have a must-win look to them.
“I thought in last year’s group our team did a magnificent job of getting through the pool,” says Penney. “When you look at Racing, you look at Saracens and Edinburgh were semi-finalists the year before, for that team to get through . . . I think it was the first time in over 100 ERC games Rog and Paulie didn’t play in a match, and I don’t think the team got enough credit for last year’s effort to get through. That was a very difficult pool.
“This year’s pool is equally challenging for different reasons. Edinburgh right now will be hurting, they’ll be hurting after last year, they’ll be hurting about their start to this year and they’ll be looking at the Heineken as ‘right, this is a clean slate for us, we can get something out of this season if we do well’.
“So when we go up there first round, they’ll be wanting to rip our heads off, and then obviously we’ve got Gloucester, and there’s a lot of history and some important matches between Munster and Gloucester over the years, and one in particular.
“They are a side that have a lot of talent, particularly in their backline, that are very dangerous if we give them space.
“Perpignan are doing a great job in the French competition, and any time you go and play a French side . . . so without trying to be long-winded, if you ever think for a moment, ‘Jeez, we might have a lesser quality pool’ you’re going to get your head bitten off.
“It’s just the nature of this competition. So I learned that last year,” he admits. “Big time,” he adds, laughing.
In the second year of a two-year contract, for Penney to leave a true legacy this season Munster have to show signs of further progress. Evidence of that over the next three weeks would be helpful.