Tag Archives: Munster

Who Is Gerhard Van Den Heever?

Van den Heever

Gerhard Van den Heever. (c) Stomers Rugby.

Born in Bloemfontein, van den Heever traveled the 425 kilometres to Pretoria for his schooling at the famous Affies high school. With an alumni including Fourie du Preez, Pierre Spies and Leinster’s Quinn Roux, Affies offers one of the best rugby educations in South Africa.

Van den Heevers’s rugby potential was spotted by the Blue Bulls and he represented them at the U16 Grant Khomo week in 2005. The following two years saw Van den Heever making the natural progression to the Academy Week (U18 secondary National competition) in 2006 and finally the 2007 Craven Week, which represents the peak of South African schools rugby. The Bloemfontein flyer didn’t make the international schools team, but his future with the Bulls was secure.

Van den Heever finished out 2007 out by playing for the Bulls in the ABSA U19 competition. 2008 was spent playing Varsity Cup rugby for the University of Pretoria (‘Tuks’), earning him selection for the inaugural World University Championship Rugby Sevens in Spain. He furthered his reputation at the Bulls with another outstanding campaign in the ABSA U19 competition.

2009 was an important developmental year in Van den Heever’s career. In February, he made his first Vodacom Cup appearance for the Bulls, starting on the wing. Two weeks later, a broken hand for Bryan Habana catapulted Van den Heever into the Bulls’ Super Rugby team for their derby with the Stormers. Still only 19, the pacy winger acquitted himself well and went on to make two more starts before Habana returned. Van den Heever scored his first senior try for the Bulls in a 36-12 loss to the Highlanders.

Habana’s recovery meant the youngster dropped out of the match day squad, but his star had been marked. In June, he traveled to the Junior World Championship with a CJ Stander-captained South Africa, scoring three tries in four games as the Baby ‘Boks finished third. Van den Heever was an unstoppable boulder of form at this stage and returned home to be a star of the 2009 Currie Cup, scoring 11 tries in 13 starts on the wing.

(c) SA Rugby.

The Bulls won the Currie Cup that season, but Van den Heever was unlucky to be benched for the knock-out stages as the big names of Habana and Francois Hougaard were drafted in. Instead, Van den Heever dropped back to the Bulls U21 side for their Currie Cup final against Western Province. The 6ft 3ins wide man scored two tries with practically his only touches of the game to round off an incredible year.

Habana’s move to the Stormers at the start of 2010 meant that there was finally a spot in the Bulls’ Super 14 team for the wonderkid. Van den Heever began the season as he intended to go on, scoring a try in a 51-34 win over the Cheetahs. From then on he was undroppable, starting all but two of the Bulls’ 15 games en route to winning the competition. Van den Heever’s eight tries (including this spectacular effort) left him just one behind top scorers Joe Rokocoko and Drew Mitchell.

The 21-year-old’s excellent form continued in the Currie Cup, with 15 starts and 5 tries as the Bulls relinquished their title in a semi-final loss to Natal. Overall, it was an incredible season for the young winger and, amidst the hype, Van den Heever was being talked about as a possible Springbok. Another good season in 2011 would possibly have led to an international call-up.

But after the peak of 2009 and 2010 has come something of an extended trough for Van den Heever. His nickname at the Bulls was ‘Shadow’ due to his extreme pace but ironically his form has gradually become a shadow of that 2010 season.

In 2011, he made 14 appearances but only scored three tries as the Bulls failed to make the play-offs in the re-structured Super Rugby. It was far from a vintage season for Frans Ludeke’s side and despite starting with a bang, Van den Heever’s form suffered. In that season’s Currie Cup the Bulls struggled again, missing out on the playoffs. Van den Heever made seven starts but managed just one try. The Bulls style of play in 2011 meant Van den Heever saw less of the ball, and his form dropped away.

Van den Heever in action for the Stormers. (c) Paul Barnard.

After a year in which he and the Bulls hadn’t sparked, Van den Heever decided to make a move to the Stormers in Cape Town on a two-year deal. A strange transfer, considering that Habana and Gio Aplon were already established there as first choice wingers. Van den Heever had to be content with warming the bench for much of the 2012 season. He played 15 times (7 starts) and scored a solitary try in round 16. In the Currie Cup, he started all 12 games as Western Province won the competition, but dotted down just twice.

That brings us to the 2013 season, where Van den Heever made 11 appearances (3 starts) as the Stormers missed out on the Super Rugby playoffs. He began the season on the bench again, but an injury to Habana saw him start twice in March before suffering an injury himself. After recovering, Van den Heever was back riding pine. He scored one try in the 2013 Super Rugby season.

I watched Van den Heever in the games he started against the Brumbies in round six, and the Crusaders in round seven. The first thing that struck me was the size of the 24-year-old. At 6ft 3ins and around 100kg, he is in the George North-mould of large wingers. At that size, he’s obviously strong and he often beat the first defender when in possession. He has quick feet for a tall guy and that means he doesn’t run directly into defenders too often.

Van den Heever looked to be solid under the high ball. He has a good leap and with his height advantage he can win attacking kicks and re-starts. Against the Crusaders, the Stormers looked for Van den Heever from the re-starts and he won possession back twice. However, those were the occasions when the winger was in the right place. His reactions and anticipation can be slow. Great players are always in the right place, but Van den Heever wasn’t consistently well positioned.

He was forced to kick twice over the course of the two games and looked uncomfortable doing so. That looks like an area where Munster will need to do some work. Also, his technique at the breakdown is likely to be addressed. Van den Heever looked happy to just add his weight to the ruck, rather than clearing past the ball or counter-rucking. Obviously this is not a winger’s priority, but it’s a necessity for every player.

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Off the bench against the Blues in 2012. (c) Paul Barnard.

Van den Heever’s greatest asset is his searing pace. He is one of the quickest wingers South Africa has produced, and a quick search on Youtube will tell you all you need to know. That speed combined with his footwork make him a threat whenever he gets the ball, but I felt that he could have been far more involved. Pacy players are the ones you look to for a spark, but Van den Heever didn’t provide that in either game.

The 24-year-old scored against the Brumbies from an intercept, but apart from that only touched the ball when it was kicked to him or spread wide to his wing. He never came off the touchline looking for work. Having spoken to a few journalists in South Africa, this would be their main concern about Van den Heever. The perception is that he can be one-dimensional and unwilling to get himself involved at crucial times in games.

Defensively, Van den Heever is a good one-on-one tackler. He didn’t miss a tackle in either of the games I watched, but neither did he make a dominant tackle. If he’s going to replace Doug Howlett with conviction, he will need to use that huge frame of his to make an impact on defence. Again, the feeling is that Van den Heever is happy to just do enough to get by. He didn’t go looking for a big defensive play, or to use his power to smash attackers.

With his pace, size, strength, ability in the air, and still being just 24, Van den Heever can definitely offer Munster something they don’t have in the back three. He is not the finished article but the move to Ireland could be just the motivation he needs to start showing that incredible form of 2010 again. His size and speed make him an exciting prospect and it will be fascinating to watch his progress at Munster.

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Photos: Paul Barnard.

Munster Will Rue Missed Chances

Asm vs Munster

Missed chances in Montpellier. (c) Mathilde Bourel.

Muster getting within a score of Clermont in Saturday’s Heineken Cup semi-final was always going to be notched down as another ‘heroic’ performance. Based on form over the season, operating budget, home advantage and other reasons, Clermont were clear favourites. While Munster’s display was excellent and should be lauded, the players and management will have serious regrets about the chance that was missed.

The emotion of the Munster players immediately after the final whistle told the story. This wasn’t a case of being well beaten by the better team on the day, but rather of an opportunity missed. Clermont’s mental fragility at this stage of knock-out competitions was evident again, as Munster turned up in a big way. Rob Penney and his squad won’t merely shrug their shoulders and admit to being beaten by the best team in Europe. Instead, they will look to learn as much as possible from this loss.

Joe Schmidt made an interesting observation at his unveiling as Ireland coach, saying, “I am a massive believer that transition is a constant.” While it’s clear that Munster are in the midst of dealing with a changing playing staff, they remain in the business of winning trophies. The loss to Clermont won’t be accepted as something that was inevitable, but rather with a pronouncement of not making the same mistakes next time around.

Asm vs Munster

Clermont took their chances. (c) Mathilde Bourel.

More specifically, while this was an exceptional Munster performance with some top-class individual efforts, there were aspects that let them down. In the video below, the focus is on Munster’s use of possession and their inability to turn it into points on several occasions. Obviously they scored a superb, intelligent try through Denis Hurley and nearly had another after Casey Laulala’s perfectly-weighted grubber, but here the focus is on the opportunities they let slip.

The intention is not to be overly negative about Munster’s showing. They played some great rugby and it was thoroughly encouraging for next season. Paul O’Connell summed it up perfectly after the game:

“Second half we had our opportunities and we didn’t really take them. We got a good try from a great little chip from ROG, but there were plenty of other opportunities when we were in their 22, 10 metres from their line, five metres from their line particularly just before half-time and we didn’t take those opportunities.”

Let’s have a closer look at what O’Connell was talking about:

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I’d appreciate people’s honest, constructive feedback on this type of video post. Is there interest in more of this kind of thing? What could be done better? Let me know. Thanks.

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Photos: Mathilde Bourel is on Flickr, and can also be found on Twitter.

Do Clermont Have Any Weaknesses?

Nyanga the Butcher

Unforgivable try-butchering from Yannick Nyanga last weekend during Clermont vs. Toulouse.

Clermont’s formula for success is very simple. They have an abundance of players who are superb individually, but crucially, all of them buy into the Vern Cotter mantra of working extremely hard. The Auvergne-based heavyweights have threats literally everywhere across the field, as well as off the bench. Their attacking game plan is nothing revolutionary, just good players making good decisions at the right time. On form, they can score from almost any situation.

Many of these scores come from moments of individual brilliance in open phase play, which is backed up by their excellent support running. The likes of Fofana, Sivivatu, Nalaga, Chouly and Hines will create chances however you defend against them, and they are excellent finishers. It’s very difficult not to see them scoring tries in Montpellier. That much is obvious, but the big question remains, do Clermont have any weaknesses? I’m going to use Clermont’s most recent match, the 39-17 win over Toulouse last weekend, to look for any potential areas to target.

The loss of captain Rougerie is a blow. While the 32-year-old is perhaps edging past his peak, he is of massive importance to Clermont, not just for his leadership. He’s still a good player, and his defensive game is undervalued. Clermont’s backline like to press up hard in defence, even in the opposition’s half. That places great demands on the 13’s decision making, and Rougerie more often than not gets it right. While King and Stanley are superb attacking replacements, they don’t offer the same security as Rougerie on ‘D’.

Rougerie

The loss of Rougerie could make Clermont weaker defensively.

One way to beat a rush defence is to try get around the outside edge of it. In the screen-grab above, Toulouse have tried something like that. From a Toulouse scrum, Clermont come up fast and McAlister flings a wide, flat pass to Fickou in the 13 channel. The aim is to get Fickou outside Rougerie , but he reads it superbly and forces a knock-on. Munster might get some success in this situation now that Rougerie is missing. Lualala has great feet and neither King nor Stanley possess quite the same level of decision-making as Rougerie. ROG threw some encouragingly excellent passes vs. ‘Quins and more of the same may reap rewards.

Another obvious way to break down a defense which likes to get up quick is through well-placed kicks. Unfortunately for Toulouse, McAlister either didn’t spot opportunities or executed badly. Below, you can see that fullback Lee Byrne (last player out on the left) has stepped up into the defensive line. This was something that was repeated on several occasions. Contrary to what you might expect, Parra also steps into the line and Clermont have nobody covering in behind. The closest thing to a ‘sweeper’ is outhalf Delany, coming from the other side of the scrum. A good chip or grubber by McAlister for Fickou and it was try-time. Instead, the outhalf did a goose-step and gave his centre a forward pass.

Clermont Defense

Clermont like to fill the first-up defensive line, not just close to their own try-line.

The next example (below) is further out, around the halfway line, but the premise is similar. Clermont’s defence is up quickly, without a winger hanging back. McAlister has spotted the opportunity and attempted a cross-field kick for Huget, who can be seen out on the far wing. Unfortunately, McAlister’s kick was poor, too far ahead of Huget, and bounced badly. But again, there’s try written all over the opportunity. Clermont do seem to repeatedly stack the defensive line. Whatever about his weaknesses, ROG still possesses an accurate kicking game, certainly better than McAlister’s, and he will spot these opportunities. Zebo will be ready and waiting.

Clermont Cross Field Kicks

There may be chances for well-placed ROG kicks.

Staying with kicking, Toulouse got a lot of change from their re-starts. Clermont are going to score on Saturday, so Munster will need to be precise in retrieving possession from these situations. McAlister dropped every single one of his kicks just over the 10-metre line, above hooker Benjamin Kayser. Clermont seemed unsure of who should claim the ball in that zone and Toulouse won possession back at least 4 times in this manner. The screen-grab below shows exactly where Toulouse targeted (in this case Nyanga wins the ball). It may not be a case of going after the exact same zone for Munster, but in O’Connell, O’Mahony, Ryan and Zebo they have excellent kick retrievers.

Drop-Offs

Clermont were very poor at receiving restarts.

Munster will certainly need to mix up their attacking game this weekend, and using last weekend’s game as a guide, they should look to attack the fringes around the rucks. Again, Toulouse had some success here. Louis Picamoles’ try (video below) was the most obvious example, but there were other instances where the big Toulouse carriers made yards. Scrumhalf Luke Burgess sniped intermittently and also made decent ground. Conor Murray’s skills look suited to the task. However, Clermont are usually far more watertight in these areas and they will certainly step up a level for the Munster game.

Putting it all together, attacking and targeting Clermont around the fringes and with kicks in behind may not result directly in tries, but it will challenge Clermont’s stifling defence. They’re extremely strong in the middle, where they’ll come up hard and smash ball carriers. If you play into their hands, they’ll turn you over and score tries from that sort of broken-up situation. It’s an obvious thing to state, but Munster need to play with lots of variety, constantly challenging Clermont to react.

While the scoreline and various media reports suggest that Clermont wiped the floor with Toulouse last weekend, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Outhalf McAlister missed two kickable penalties and turned down a few other chances for kicks at goal. Toulouse also butchered a genuine try-scoring chance (photo at the top) when Nyanga selfishly failed to pass to Fickou. Admittedly  Clermont’s 2nd-half display was lazier than usual, having built up a strong lead. That won’t happen again this weekend. They are a phenomenal side, that’s beyond doubt. But they can be beaten. 6 losses in the Top 14 this season show that. The odds are heavily in Clermont’s favour but this match is not a foregone conclusion.

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* Apologies for the poor quality screen-grabs. It would be great if people could let me know if they enjoy this sort of piece, where I try to do more detailed analysis. If so, I could look into a better way of highlighting examples in the future, possibly in videos or more detailed photos of play. Let me know what you think.

PRO12 Semi-Finals Preview

Ospreys vs. Munster @ Liberty Stadium

Fri 11th May, 19.35 (RTE2)

Congratulations for Danny Barnes copy

Munster beat the Ospreys at this stage last season, with Danny Barnes scoring a brace. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.

It’s 2nd versus 3rd in the first of the PRO12 semi-finals tonight. Munster will be desperate to advance in the hope of salvaging something from this campaign, but they face a tough task in Swansea. The Ospreys have been impressive all season in this competition and come into the game on a 5-game winning streak which started with their 23-22 victory over Leinster at the RDS in March.

Ronan O’Gara returns to the Munster bench, meaning Ian Keatley is back in at outhalf. This is a huge game for the ex-Connacht and Leinster man. After a strong start to the season, his form has tailed off and he needs to show that he is ROG’s long-term successor. The rest of the Munster team is as expected, with Keith Earls back at outside centre and keen to show Rob Penney that 13 is his best position. Ivan Dineen comes onto the wing due to a late Felix Jones injury, with Johne Murphy moving to fullback. Dave Kilcoyne is on the bench following his promising recent form.

Up front, the knee injury to Paul O’Connell means Mick O’Driscoll gets another outing before retirement. With James Coughlan still out with a hand injury, Peter O’Mahony continues at No.8. Without O’Gara and O’Connell, Munster haven’t looked the same side this season, so it’s crucial that the likes of Mafi, O’Driscoll, O’Callaghan and Botha step up to the leadership mark.

Mafi magic as Sexton and O'Gara eyeball

Mafi will be out to ensure this isn’t his final game for Munster. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.

The Ospreys side is largely as predicted, with Dan Biggar set to steer the ship at 10. Interestingly, coach Steve Tandy has gone for Kahn Fotuali’i at scrumhalf rather than the talented youngster Rhys Webb, who is likely to have an impact off the bench. The centre partnership of Ashley Beck and Andrew Bishop has been effective for the Ospreys this year, with 22-year-old Beck looking to earn a place on Wales’ summer tour to Australia.

Up front, the Ospreys are highly experienced. The front-row of Paul James, Richard Hibbard and Adam Jones have been around the block once or twice and will be confident of scrum dominance. Behind them, Joe Beardman is the only of the five who is not a Welsh international. Openside flanker Justin Tipuric has had a fantastic season, showing that Wales have depth behind Sam Warburton.

It’s a strong, solid, grizzled Ospreys team who have been doing the business all season. The Welsh side have lost only 3 of their 17 home fixtures, and they’ve already beaten Munster home and away. With the likes of Mafi, O’Driscoll and coach Tony McGahan all set to leave Munster, the province will be keen not to end their season on a losing note. However, the Ospreys appear to have too much. Verdict: Ospreys.

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Leinster vs. Warriors @ The RDS

Sat 12th May, 19.35 (TG4)

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Leinster’s record vs. the Warriors this season is P4, W2, D1, L1. (c) Ken Bohane.

Joe Schmidt will be ignoring the unfounded speculation of a return to New Zealand as Leinster look to stay on course for an historic double. They host the Glasgow Warriors is the second semi-final on Saturday night. The Scottish side confirmed 4th place with a 24-3 win over a disappointing Connacht last weekend. Regardless of the teams Sean Lineen and Schmidt pick (as yet neither side has been revealed), Leinster should have too much quality to be overcome by the Warriors.

The Scottish side have obviously been doing something right to find themselves at this stage of the competition. Lineen has built a solid, unspectacular outfit who are difficult to break down. They have obvious limitations in attack, highlighted by the fact that they have only bettered 3 other teams in terms of tries scored in the PRO12. The main attacking spark they possess is Stuart Hogg at fullback.

The 19-year-old Scottish international has lightening quick feet and pace to burn so Leinster will need to watch him closely. Duncan Weir has been given the nod over Ruaridh Jackson at outhalf. Weir offers more solidity in the 10 jersey, as well as a reliable boot, but expect to see the creative Jackson off the bench if the Warriors have to chase the game. Lineen’s backline really won’t strike fear into the Leinster squad. Big Graeme Morrison at 12 will look to put dents in the Irish side’s defence but is limited.

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Richie Gray will be a danger to Leinster’s lineout. (c) Ken Bohane.

Up front, Richie Gray and Ally Kellock form a complete second-row, which will cause problems for Leinster at the lineout in particular. At No.8 John Barclay has ball-carrying ability, but his form has been patchy this season. For Leinster, the only real surprise is that Eoin O’Malley starts at 13. This season’s PRO12 stalwarts in Devin Toner and Dave Kearney have earned their right to start. Fergus McFadden and Dave Kearney are in competition for a H-Cup final spot so expect big efforts from both

Schmidt has picked a team that’s close to full strength, in what doubles up as a test run for the Heineken Cup final. It would be foolish to completely write off the Warriors. Despite the two wins for Leinster in Pool 3 of the Heineken Cup, the Warriors beat Schimdt’s side at The RDS in September and Leinster could only manage a draw in Firhill in February. However, Leinster should be close to full strength and the Warriors cannot match that quality. Verdict: Leinster.

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Photos courtesy: Ivan O’Riordan, Ken Bohane.

Here’s to Wally

David Wallace another magical performance copy

Wallace in full flow as Munster beat Leinster in the 2011 Magner League final. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.

David Wallace is the latest Ireland legend to announce his retirement. I thought I’d share one or two memories of his days with Munster and Ireland. Hopefully, you have a few that you can contribute too. If you do, leave a comment at the end of the piece and share the love for Wally!

My first ever Munster match was a Heineken Cup pool game in 2001 against Castres. Munster won 21-11 thanks to a try from Anthony Foley and 11 points from the reliable boot of ROG. But it was David Wallace’s performance that stood out. He was named Man of the Match for what was fast becoming a typically powerful display. I still have the match programme and I wrote in ‘MOTM’ beside his name, along with a little star!

It was immediately clear to my uneducated rugby eye that Wallace was a genuine star. He would be called up to the Lions tour later in the year to replace the injured Lawrence Dallaglio. Of course he scored a try there too. The Limerick man was almost impossible to stop from five metres out. As soon as Munster or Ireland got within sniffing distance of the tryline, there was only one man they looked for.

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A familiar sight for Irish rugby fans. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.

Wallace’s power in contact was second to none. As his career progressed, and his thighs grew ever larger, he became harder and harder to stop. His try-scoring record was prolific for a back-row. He scored 40 tries in his 203 appearances for Munster. For Ireland, he dotted down 12 times in his 72 caps. It may not read as particularly impressive, but to give a quick comparison, centre Gordon D’Arcy has 7 in 68 caps. Wally’s pace and freakish strength made him a serious finisher.

Anyone who ever saw Wallace live, in the flesh, will know just how strong he was. The collisions he was involved in were nearly always accompanied by a sickening thud. His ability to accelerate into contact should not be underestimated. Any rugby player will tell you how hard it is to consciously do. The natural instinct is often to simply accept a tackle. Good coaches constantly remind their players to accelerate into the contact zone and battle to stay on their feet. Wallace didn’t need to be told. He relished the physical battle and always burst into tacklers.

One of the most enjoyable games I’ve ever been at was that famous bonus point win over Sale in Thomond Park in 2006. It was into injury time when Wallace picked from a ruck and strolled over for the try that guaranteed Munster’s progress. Interestingly, there was no one in front of him that time, but if there had been they wouldn’t have stopped him. It was one of the days where I truly understood just how special Munster rugby was and Wallace played the starring role.

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Wallace never accepted the tackle, always fighting to stay on his feet. (c) Liam Coughlan.

He wasn’t simply a bosh merchant though. Wally was an intelligent player with a phenomenal work-rate. His support play from 7 was underrated. He scored plenty of tries by simply being in the right place at the right time, the mark of a great player. His fitness was unquestionable, with the big carries and hits coming for the full 80 minutes. On top of that, he always came across as good craic and a nice guy.

Two Heineken Cups, two Magners Leagues, a Celtic Cup, three Triple crowns, a Rugby World Cup, a Grand Slam and two Lions tours. That says it all really. A legend of Irish rugby.

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Photos courtesy: Ivan O’Riordan.

Your In-Depth Guide to Rob Penney

Thomond Park

(c) Liam Coughlan.

Like many fans, I hadn’t heard much about Rob Penney before his name was linked to the Munster job. So what qualifies the 48-year-old New Zealander for the job? It appears that his sustained success at provincial level in New Zealand, coupled with a strong record of youth development is what swayed the ‘powers that be’ in Munster.

Based out of the Burnside Rugby Club in Christchurch, Penney’s representative playing career consisted of 101 games for Canterbury between 1985 and 1994. He was a No.8 and captained the province for the ’92 and ’93 seasons. In 1991, he trialled for the All Blacks. A certain Zinzan Brooke was the man in possession of the No.8 jersey at that stage though. The likes of AJ Whetton, Michael Jones and Mark Carter made the back-row a fiercely competitive place and Penney missed out on an international cap.

Following his retirement in ’94, Penney took a year away from the game before moving into the back-room side of things as Chief Executive of the Marlborough Rugby Union in ’96. Penney stayed with the regional side until ’99. Interestingly, the Marlborough Union went on to be amalgamated with the Nelson Bay Union in 2005. The product would later become one of Penney’s ITM Cup rivals – the Tasman Makos.

’99 saw Penney move to the position of Head of Provincial Development for Canterbury. This role was basically the equivalent of the Academy Manager role in  Munster. Penney’s job brief involved developing and producing young players for the Canterbury ITM Cup (then called the National Provincial Championship) side, and eventually the Crusaders Super Rugby side. In 2003, Penney moved up to the role of Assistant Coach under Aussie McLean. He continued to work hard at the development of youngsters despite the promotion.

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Penney’s Canterbury side on the way to another win in the 2010 ITM Cup. Luke Romano (with ball) and Sean Maitland (right) both came through Canterbury’s system to play Super Rugby with the Crusaders. (c) BigBadaboom0.

The NPC trophies won in 2001, under current All Blacks boss Steve Hansen, and 2004, under current All Blacks defence coach McLean, featured many of the youngsters Penney had worked with. The likes of Corey Flynn, Caleb Ralph, Norm Maxwell and even Leinster’s scrum coach Greg Feek came through at Canterbury during Penney’s time in charge, going on to represent the All Blacks. Clearly, the Burnside man was making big contributions to Canterbury’s success.

This was recognised when Penney was drafted into the Crusaders Super 12 coaching team in 2005. Canterbury are basically a feeder region for the Crusaders, along with the Buller, Mid-Canterbury, South Canterbury, Tasman and West Coast unions. This was a definite step up for Penney’s coaching career. His main duty was the Crusaders’ lineout. Working with a pack that included Richie McCaw, Reuben Thorn and Chris Jack would have made it an enjoyable experience.

The Crusaders won the 2005 Super 12, beating the Waratahs 35-25 in the Grand Final. Penney’s contribution was again apparent and Canterbury recognised it by appointing him Head Coach in 2006. It took Penney two years to build the side in his own vision. By 2008 the NPC had become the Air New Zealand Cup and Canterbury had reclaimed the crown for the first time since ’04, after a gripping 7-6 win over Wellington in the final. Penney’s record of bringing young players through once again paid dividends as Kieran Read captained the side and Colin Slade was top points scorer.

For the next four years the success continued, bringing four consecutive titles. The tournament changed sponsor in 2010 to become the ITM Cup, but the winning mentality at Canterbury remained. During the 2009 final, a 28-20 win over Wellington, another academy product, Stephen Brett, made a big impact at outhalf. In the same team were Munster’s Pete Borlase and Casey Laulala. In 2010, young academy products again made the difference, with Ryan Crotty and Matt Todd scoring tries in the 33-13 win over Waikato.

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Penney will be expected to develop Munster’s young players, who won the B&I Cup this month. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.

The 2011 final saw a solid 12-3 win, again over Waikato. Tyler Bleyendaal and Tom Taylor both burst into the side in the number 10 jersey during the season. Both have since progressed to the Crusaders set-up. Taylor’s recent form has meant Dan Carter being shifted to inside centre. The major point is that Penney has a genuine ability and record at bringing through outhalfs (outhalves?). That bodes well for Munster as Ronan O’Gara approaches the final years of his career.

His work with young player development was recognised by the the NZRU in November of 2011, when they appointed him Head Coach of the U20 All Blacks, replacing Ulster-bound Mark Anscombe. Penney has committed himself to taking the U20 side to the Junior World Championship in South Africa this coming June. The exclusions of Chiefs flanker Sam Cane and Hurricanes scrumhalf TJ Perenara mean it’s the first time New Zealand will defend their title without any players returning from the previous season. They will still be amongst the favourites.

Penney is expected to arrive in Munster in July for the start of a new era at the province. Anthony Foley is to continue as Forwards Coach, while an announcement on a new Backs Coach is expected soon. It’s clear what Penney brings: an undeniably strong record of developing young players; lineout organisation skills; and most importantly, a winning mentality. His job over the next two years is to get Munster back to where they belong.

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ITM Cup Final 2010 Highlights:

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ITM Cup Final 2011 Highlights:

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Photos courtesy: Ivan O’Riordan, Liam Coughlan, BigBadaboom0.

Foley and Umaga – Risk or Reward?

Red Army

What next for Munster? (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

This week has seen Munster interview both Rob Penney and Tana Umaga for the Head Coach role at the province next season. An intelligent appointment will be absolutely crucial for Munster Rugby, especially as Ulster look to move above them in the pecking order of Irish clubs. Much has been made of Munster’s transitional state, but a smart move now will bring fresh ideas and a new impetus.

Tony McGahan has been criticised by factions of the Red Army throughout his time in charge. While I am in agreement with certain points of the dissent, I feel that the Australian has done a decent job. It’s unnecessary to go through the number of players who have moved on during his tenure at Munster. However, McGahan has done as good a job as anyone could have with the resources at his disposal. The manner in which Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray and Simon Zebo have become first-team players is particularly praiseworthy.

McGahan will move on, hopefully with a third Magners League winners’ medal to show for his work. After Munster’s loss to Ulster in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals, it’s easy to suggest that the next coach will have a thankless job on his hands as Munster go backwards. However, they are still one of the most renowned clubs in the world. They have a huge fan base and, thanks to McGahan’s good work with the Academy, are now producing promising young players. Bringing Munster back to the pinnacle of European rugby would be an attractive challenge for any coach.

Cup Winners

Munster will be hoping to return to 2008's heights. (c) Martin Dobey.

Anthony Foley will retain his position as part of the province’s coaching staff, but whether he moves the position of Head Coach remains to be seen. He’s the clear favourite, but the fact that Munster have interviewed other candidates shows that they have doubts. Foley has no experience as a Head Coach. Many will highlight his undoubtedly good work as Forwards Coach, but that is a far more technical role. As pointed out by the Demented Mole, matching a more experienced figure such as Graham Henry or Ian McGeechan with Foley would make sense.

Do Penney or Umaga offer that crucial experience and know-how? Not particularly. Penney has a good track-record with the Canterbury ITM Cup provincial side, having won the tournament in each of the last four years. At the end of last year, he was appointed as the New Zealand U20 Head Coach, replacing Ulster-bound Mark Anscombe. Umaga’s coaching experience involves a stint with Toulon where he did more good on the pitch than off it as well as his current position in charge of ITM Cup side Counties Manukau Steelers, which began in December. Not the most impressive CV.

Rather than experience, what they would bring to Munster is a fresh approach and high levels of motivation. Both have plenty to prove as coaches and would be keen to make an impact in their first top-level roles. The word is that Penney specialises in coaching forwards, so that would appear to give Umaga an increased chance of employment at the province. The 74-times capped All Black would bring a new approach to Munster’s back play, something I would definitely welcome.

The Farewell Match

Umaga playing his final game for the Hurricanes in 2007. (c) Dean Pemberton.

As a player, Umaga was intelligent, skillful and aggressive. Looking at Munster’s backline options for next season – Murray, Stringer, O’Gara, Downey, Laulala, Earls, Zebo, Howlett, Jones, Murphy, Hurley, Hanrahan, Deasy, O’Dea and Barnes – it’s clear that there is lots of talent there for a new backs coach to work with. If Umaga can translate his playing style and ability into the realm of coaching, then Munster could be onto a real winner. It’s worth stressing that a great player does not automatically make a good coach though. Umaga represents a risk.

A coaching duo of Foley and Umaga looks the most likely outcome presently. In a dream world, Wayne Smith would have loved a shot at the Heineken Cup with Munster, but that’s almost certainly not going to happen. Both just 38, Foley and Umaga are relatively wet behind the ears in coaching terms. However, they will have raw motivation to bring Munster back to the forefront of European rugby. It’s worth remembering that McGahan has been at Munster since 2005, and even before succeeding Declan Kidney as Director of Rugby, he had a big say in how Munster played.

Foley and Umaga would be a breath of fresh air to the entire province. There are plenty of similarities between the pair. Both have 60+ caps for their country, 200+ caps for club/province and both retired in the ’07/08 season. These are guys who understand modern rugby. They are current and know what it’s like to be a professional player in the game today. Both come across as honest, to-the-point guys who don’t take any bullshit. While they lack top-level coaching experience, their appointments could be an exciting change for Munster.

*Who would you like to see take charge at Munster? Would a Foley/Umaga pairing work do you think? Or do they lack the required experience to be successful? Comment below with your views on where Munster should look to go with this appointment.

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Photos courtesy: Dean Pemberton, Martin Dobey, Ivan O’Riordan.