15 October 2013

A Penney for your thoughts

Much has been made over the past few days of Rob Penney’s honest assessment of his team’s performance in Edinburgh. His comments have been presented in some quarters as an open criticism of his players. That sort of honesty is never recommended in the coaches’ handbook.

In his post match interview, Rob Penney identified “complacency” as the probable cause of Munster’s malaise last Saturday. To be fair to him, after the type of display Munster delivered, it is a reasonable assessment. But what is important, Penney never tried to distance himself from the problem. He was just giving a gut reaction in an attempt to explain why they played so poorly.

Despite some suggestions, it was not a statement that will cause problems between Penney and the players. They know more than anybody that complacency in some form or other played a part in their under-performing. The theory that Penney’s assessment may lead to a schism between him and the players is just an overreach. But it is interesting, in the wake of a defeat, how every word has the potential to carry a hyperbole of it’s own.

What accentuates this loss is it was a game that Munster were expected to win at a canter. In media circles before the game, there was talk of a definite bonus point against a team whose form has been woeful in the Pro 12. But less than an hour before the game, having spoken to some members of the Munster staff, which didn’t include Rob Penney, there was an expectation that Edinburgh were on a “nothing to lose” mission.

On that basis it is fair to assume, that during the week leading up to last Saturday, the possibility of Edinburgh pulling out a big performance was discussed between the players and coaching staff. But somehow the message never got through. Remember a message is only a message if it gets delivered. Unfortunately for Munster their assessment was correct and Edinburgh delivered their performance of the season to date.

But the notion that Munster just had to show up and blow Edinburgh away was never a runner. Edinburgh are a side that have some quality players and have been underperforming alarmingly in recent weeks. The Heineken Cup would have been a fresh start for them and a relief from the drudgery that has become the Pro 12.

Despite all that, Munster should have and could have won the game. But their performance was well below par throughout. They started very poorly and in the first half their defence was light years behind where it had been against Leinster. Their line speed was too slow and as a result they lost collisions and gravitated to rucks, which gave Edinburgh the freedom of Murrayfield.

But they did attack well through direct one-off ball carriers and that caused untold problems for the Edinburgh defence. It was “Route 1 Rugby” and should have allayed any doubt in Munster’s mind that this was the road to victory.

In fact Munster came very close to scoring just on half time and had they succeeded it might have just knocked the heart out of Edinburgh. Trailing 19-17 at the break, one still felt Munster had figured out Edinburgh’s ‘Achilles Heel’ and would drive home their advantage in the second half.

But the second half was filled with irony for Munster. They obviously discussed their defensive failings at the break and brought much more intensity and aggression after the restart. But instead of building on their defence and continuing to ram home their advantage in attack, they changed the point of their attack and began moving the ball wide.

It is difficult to know why the attacking strategy changed, seeing as the direct route to the Edinburgh try line was working well in the first half. It was a change that Edinburgh would have welcomed and could be blamed for Munster’s attack becoming error ridden and sloppy. It is also possible that a block of seven substitutions in just over ten minutes mid-way through the half contributed to the confusion.

Despite their sloppiness of fifteen turnovers, Munster did not have a monopoly in that department as Edinburgh had thirteen turnovers. Even though Munster did edge the possession and territory battles, they missed eleven tackles and lost four crucial line-outs. All of which adds up to a poor performance no matter who you are playing.

In the 68th minute, had JJ Hanrahan just hoofed the ball downfield, instead of attempting a delicate chip-kick, Munster may well have gone on to win. That resulting try from Tim Visser was ultimately the crucial turning point in the game.

If Munster had won, in spite of all their failings, the narrative today would inevitably be different. It would without doubt be a case of “a win is a win” and “we always knew Edinburgh would be tough in Murrayfield”. But because the game was lost words like disaster, catastrophe and embarrassment have been bandied about.

There’s no doubt that the best time to interview a coach is directly after a game, when he is at his most emotional. Rob Penney’s honest assessment of the Munster performance would not be seen as an open criticism of his players had Munster escaped from Murrayfield with a win. But a defeat, as it always does, dramatically changes the optics on every front.

Based on last Saturday’s performance, the coaches and players have questions to answer. There are tactical questions, technical questions, leadership questions and questions on mental preparation to be addressed. All of the above have to be resolved before next weekend’s game against Gloucester. But there is nothing there that Munster do not know themselves.

It is worth remembering that a year ago there were similar discussions after Munster allowed a victory against Racing Métro slip through their fingers in Paris. (The difference between Edinburgh and Racing Métro is, Edinburgh were widely regarded as just cannon fodder before last Saturday.) Just over six months after the defeat in Paris, Munster narrowly missed out on reaching the Heineken Cup Final when they lost 16-10 to Clermont.

Rob Penney will know only too well that Munster are not finished yet, although he is also aware the slope to the summit has just gotten steeper, even if he now thinks twice about verbalising it.