Rob Penney takes heart from progress under his watch

Coach gives impassioned plea for winger Zebo to be accepted for who he is


Although ill inclined to discuss contractual matters, Rob Penney was altogether more effusive when reflecting on the progress of so many young players under his watch, and gave an impassioned plea on behalf of Simon Zebo for the player to be accepted for who he was.

With his time at Munster now confined to an unsatisfactory two year tenure – Penney had initially declared it would be a “three to five year job” – the departing head coach denied there was any additional pressure on him to extend his stay until the end of May.

“I can only do what I can do,” he said with a smile. “Whether I am here for 10 minutes or two hours I’ll give it 100 per cent. So nothing has changed. I always try to do my best and ensure this place is a little better, potentially, when I leave than when I started. Whether it is or not I don’t know but other people will judge that.”

That Munster have won 16 out of 19 games this season reflects favourably on Penney, though he took particular satisfaction from the progress made by the players. “That’s what’s exciting for me. Every week we see progress in them. So I think the coaching staff have done a great job with this group and got them in a place where – there is a bit of water to go under the bridge yet – but who knows, there could be some opportunities to contest something a bit later on.”

Darkest moments
Citing “the disappointment” of last season’s Heineken Cup semi-final and not reaching the Pro12 play-offs, Penney said: “sometimes the darkest moments are before the dawn. We said last year there was going to be a bit of a pit that the players were going to go through.”

This hardened his “admiration for the group” and “if it’s not this year I think it’s not far away from being a bit special here for a while.”

Tommy O’Donnell and Felix Jones have returned from Irish duty, as has the fit-again Donnacha Ryan for this Friday’s visit of Zebre to Musgrave Park, with Penney confident Ryan could be an option for Twickenham. Damien Varley (concussion) might return next week but Niall Scannell could be out for eight weeks due to a hyper extended elbow.

With Duncan Casey and Ger Slattery thus their only fit hookers, Munster have brought in the 22-year-old UL Bohs hooker Kevin O’Byrne, and may look at signing the New Zealand hooker Quentin MacDonald.

Donncha O’Callaghan will eclipse Ronan O’Gara as Munster’s most capped player of all time if he makes his 241st appearance, with Penney speculating the indestructible 34-year-old could play on until he’s 40.

‘Fantastic bloke’
At the start of last season’s Six Nations, Zebo was a first choice Irish winger, yet Penney maintained the winger was “in a great space”, adding: “Zeebs is a fantastic bloke and he needs to be embraced for what he is. He’s not your quintessential rugby man, and you’d never want him to be. Zeebs is loving the football, and that’s all you ask of your players. He just loves being out on the footy field. He loves being at Thomond Park in front of the Munster crowd. They embrace him for who he is.” Penney said Zebo had recovered sensibly from his foot injury to be “in really good shape physically. Now he’s just got to be consistent on and off the field to prove to other people that he’s ready to be an international footballer.”

Zebo re-enacted his try-scoring celebrations in last Saturday’s rout of Cardiff, but Penney for one stressed: “I think individuals should be allowed to express themselves. I think as soon as you start curbing an instinct that’s very pleasurable then you take away something special about the individual. I’d just hate to see that happen.”

“We call it the tall poppy syndrome in New Zealand, where if someone sticks their head up they get it chopped off and I just think it’s so wrong for young men. It’s a tough enough life as it is, so if you’ve got someone out there embracing life and showing what life’s really about, for living, and Zeebs is doing what he does on the field then that should be embraced. I hate people being criticised for that sort of thing.”

Nor, said Penney, was it a celebration which ignored the role of team-mates. “A more team-orientated guy you wouldn’t get. The players understand that.”

It’s worth stressing that there is no evidence Joe Schmidt disapproves, but Penney added: “If he’s getting advice that he should restrict that and if it would enhance his international selection then he should heed that advice, but that’s up to him and the person who’s giving him that advice. If they’ve had that conversation. If it’s been had.”