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

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.

Mixed messages
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?

Obviously, you’re a professional and you try to do your job the way that’s best for the team and the club. But you’re a human being too and it’s very difficult to ignore the fact that your new boss is in the building all the time even though he isn’t the boss yet. Even though his job hasn’t changed yet, the way you see him has.

Assistant coaches are traditionally a bit more relaxed, a bit more approachable. They don’t have the same responsibility as the head coach so they’re not under the same pressure. That means they have a bit more time for you if you need to tease something out with them. That would have been part of Foley’s role at Munster over the last few years.

But if you’re a player at Munster now, it’s bound to be hard to look at Foley and not see something more than an assistant coach. In just a few months he is the man who will be picking the team and deciding on contracts. By being named as the next head coach, he is a different figure in the eyes of the players. The dynamic changes automatically.

It happened before at Munster when Tony McGahan moved up to the top job. McGahan was someone I would have been pretty pally with off the pitch when he was an assistant coach to Declan Kidney. He’d have been one of the guys I’d have talked away to about non-rugby stuff. He lived around the corner from me and I’d often call to his house or have pint with him.

Altered relationship
But when he became head coach, that relationship changed. It had to. There was nothing ever said by either of us but we both understood that it had to become a different dynamic between us. As a player, you can’t be knocking about with the head coach. The same goes vice-versa.

For one thing, his decisions from here on out directly affect you as a player and even as a professional. Give it six or nine months and he’s going to be sitting in a room with the money men at some stage weighing up whether or not you’re worth another year or two on your contract.

If you’re both there long enough, it might eventually be that he has to let you go. That’s the toughest side of the head coach’s job and it isn’t fair on him or you if any bit of that decision is influenced by the fact that you’re a regular at his house. In fact, it might do you more harm than good. At the very least, it complicates things unnecessarily.

The other side of it is that all of a sudden, he is responsible for a whole squad of players. He can’t have two players going for the same position and one of them thinking that the other guy is getting the nod because he’s friendly with the coach. You can’t have anyone thinking there’s favouritism.

So the dynamic changed when McGahan became head coach and the same will happen for Axel now. He has to get that relationship right with these players now – and again, it’s an odd situation because he has to park all his plans and ideas for another 10 weeks. He can’t be walking around acting as the head coach before he actually has the job. It’s a delicate balance and it all has to be done at a time when important games are being played and plans are being made.

When people look in from the outside, they break eras up by head coach – the Declan Kidney period, the Alan Gaffney era, the Tony McGahan era, the Rob Penney time, the Anthony Foley era. But underneath it all, the club keeps moving along. Munster are changing coach in the coming months but in the shift from one era to the next, they have a lot they need to sort out. This is a critical time for Munster and they have to maintain momentumCasey Laulala is leaving at the end of the season, James Downey is possibly gare leaving at the end of the season and they need to be replaced. From what I hear, they’re going to look for a big enough name as an overseas signing and a project player at 10/12.

These are massive decisions and they can’t afford to get them wrong. Revenues are down, bums on seats are down, they can’t pay as much as they used to be able to for a big name. As well as that, it’s a bad time to be going looking overseas for a marquee signing. Next season is the lead-in to a World Cup so the bigger names in the Southern Hemisphere are going to want to stay put and fight for their place.

Success breeds interest
The ones who do fancy a move to the northern hemisphere will obviously find better wages on offer in France. Obviously, recruitment is made a lot easier by success. The market is tight and teams all over the world are going for the same small group of players. Going the distance in the Heineken Cup would be a huge help to a team trying to convince a top-class player to uproot from the southern hemisphere.

But the Rabo is massive as well, starting on Saturday. Munster have won more games than the other teams but they’ve slipped to second behind Leinster over the last couple of weeks. With five games to go, there’s a big financial incentive to finishing on top of the table – you get a home semi-final and then a home final if you win it. A couple of full houses in Thomond Park at the end of the season would be important to Munster.

So all in all, we’re heading into a crucial period on every front. Crucial for Rob Penney, for Anthony Foley, for Munster in general. And although some of the personal situations are a bit complicated, the one thing we know for sure is that winning would make them a lot simpler.

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