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.


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

4 responses to “Foley and Umaga – Risk or Reward?

  1. Roryokane_raz_

    I’d be happy with an Umaga/Foley combination at this point Thats not to say they couldn’t have done better. (Eddie O’Sullivan would have been a good backs coach, whether it remains to be seen he’d have taken a role of a backs role).The forwards under Foley have been good, although the pack lacks ball-carrying back-rows this season with Wallace out, id like to see Butler exposed to more action next season. I rate him very highly. The backs have lacked cutting edge and I think that Downey isnt necessarily a great signing, but if he gets quick go forward ball for Lualala/Barnes he’ll be a good signing. I think Whittan would have been an Ideal long-term signing for munster. If Munster unleash a new ball carrying back-rower and improve considerably their backs play it will be a great appointment. But it is also necessary to continue to nurture their young talent like O’Dea, Hanrahan, Butler and Nagle and Kilcoyne the way McGahon did. On a side note I’d like more Munster fringe players to leave to England Connacht or elsewhere and build a career in a way many Ulster players have, and if they prove themselves, come-back better players, like Stevenson, Humphreys, Like Caldwell, Sandford, McIIwaine are doing now, and Mc Kinny whittan and Faloon will do next season. Like in my opinion Munsters squad is too bloated which limits game time for younger players, and isnt sufficent for themselves. Holland, D.Williams, B. O’Hara, while others like Deasy Nagle and Tommy O’Donnell still undoubtably have potential yet are hugely inexperienced in a way that Donnacha Ryan is hugely inexperienced for a 28 year old

    • Some great points Rory. Agree with you on Paddy Butler, great prospect at 8. Hope we see plenty of him next season. Downey will be a really interesting one. Some people seem to be putting a lot of hope in him. I definitely don’t rate the Aviva Premiership that highly, so it remains to be seen if he can step up for Munster. Ideally he will be a strong vocal point to get us on the front foot.

      It’s definitely vital that Munster keep up McGahan’s good work with the youngsters. Especially as the likes of ROG and O’Connell amongst others aren’t getting any younger. It’s so important that the guys you’ve mentioned get enough exposure. Definitely agree with you that Munster’s senior squad is bloated. It’s great to have depth in any squad, but pointless having players who play one or two games a season.

  2. Not sure I would be overly confident with an Axel/Umaga partnership. While I think both could be do an excellent job as forwards and backs coach respectively, I would be slightly worried at the major lack of experience as a head coach. Umaga’s time at Toulon was a disaster and only saved his skin with some excellent performances on the pitch. This is a crucial time for Munster Rugby with as you said, Ulster looking likely to edge ahead of us with their current crop of players. Ideally I would love to see an experienced head coach come in and have Foley and Umaga be given forwards and backs roles and who knows, maybe a few years down the line, either of them could step it up to head coach. Dont know anything at all about this Penney fella. But again I would worry. Should he be given the role, will we see another mass influx of Southern Hemisphere players who arent fit to wear the Munster jersey, especially as I feel we have plenty of young talent that need to continue to be brought through the ranks.

  3. You’ve got it all bang on there Cian. Such a vital time for Munster now. The next few years will see ROG and POC, and others, finishing up. We have the talent there but it’s going to take the right man (or men) to bring them through in the manner in which Schmidt does with Leinster’s youngsters.

    Your concerns about Foley/Umags’s inexperience are definitely valid. As pointed out elsewhere, it’s odd the Munster didn’t look to top-level guys like Graham Henry or even Ian McGeechan to come in and oversee this crucial period, with Foley and Umaga sticking to the technical side of things. We are one of the biggest clubs in the world, so I don’t think it would have been out of question.

    At the same time, maybe a fresh, youthful coaching ticket is exactly what Munster need. We’ve been playing the same, ROG and POC-driven rugby for years now. A more experienced coach might be happy to stick with that formula, whereas Foley and Umaga in charge might really look to change things up… Either way it’s going to be interesting!

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