Umaga next up but Foley remains favourite for Munster job


RUGBY:ROB PENNEY having been interviewed yesterday, the 74-times capped former All Blacks’ captain Tana Umaga will arrive in Limerick today for his interview as Munster harden their search for a successor to their outgoing head coach Tony McGahan. Current assistant/forwards coach Anthony Foley remains the favourite on the three-man shortlist, with Munster possibly in a position to confirm the appointment by the end of the week.

The successor will be appointed by Munster’s Professional Game Board, featuring CEO Garrett Fitzgerald, financial controller John Hartery, Jim Riordan, ex-player John Kelly, manager Shaun Payne and McGahan, with Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara likely to be consulted.

Penney is currently head coach of Canterbury’s ITM Cup provincial side, but they will not block Penney’s path if he is appointed head coach of Munster. “No, we wouldn’t stand in his way,” admitted the Canterbury CEO Hamish Riach recently. “He let me know midway through last week he has got this opportunity and has been up front about it. During his time here he has given us longevity, success and his contribution has been outstanding.”

Penney has guided Canterbury to the last four national championship titles but has been unable to secure a Super head coaching job after applying for several roles. He was also appointed New Zealand Under-20 coach recently, a position he would probably have to vacate if appointed by Munster.

In a stellar playing career which saw him score 36 tries and captain his country 21 times, Umaga led the All Blacks to a 3-0 whitewash over a Lions’ team captained by Brian O’Driscoll in which, of course, he and Keven Mealamu were at the centre of the Speargate tackle in the opening stages of the first Test, which led to O’Driscoll requiring shoulder surgery.

After stints as director of rugby and backs coach with Toulon, and two years as player/assistant coach with Counties Manukau, Umaga was appointed their head coach last December.

Hence, Penney’s coaching CV is more extensive than Umaga’s, but as a former hooker who is more noted as a forwards’ coach, employing him would appear to be stepping on Foley’s toes. It would also mean finding a backs coach. The likeliest outcome remains Foley being appointed head coach, perhaps with Umaga as backs coach.

After his own stellar career with Munster and Ireland, Foley has made an impressive foray into coaching, first as defensive coach with Munster last season before assuming the role of forwards coach this season in succession to Lawrie Fisher.

Munster undoubtedly saw Foley as McGahan’s ultimate successor when first offering McGahan a two-year extension earlier this season. At McGahan’s behest, and follwing further discussions, that was revised to a one-year extension with the option of a second year, before McGahan was persuaded to return to his native Australia as assistant Wallabies’ coach to Robbie Deans and thus declined Munster’s offer.

Ideally Munster would have preferred a like-for-like replacement for McGahan, ie an experienced head coach of at least Super 15/Heineken Cup level whose expertise is back play; all the more so if backs coach Jason Holland moves on at the end of his contract this summer. This in turn would have allowed Foley to continue his tutelage as forwards coach for another two years or so before being promoted to head coach without running the risk of pushing him too soon.

But no candidate of that ilk has emerged, such as the All Blacks’ World Cup-winning backs coach Wayne Smith, who has been linked with England.

Failing that, Foley would seem the best choice. Sometimes the provinces have been better rewarded by taking a punt on someone less proven, or as Declan Kidney’s reign demonstrated, someone closer to home.