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.
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.
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.