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Penney has dropped; the Munster men are firing again

By Michael Sadlier

It was just too difficult to ignore the elephants in the room this week.

After all, Munster are sitting at the head of the PRO12 table and are also heading towards the Heineken Cup's last eight yet again as they are setting the pace in Pool six.

So, with all that in mind, the question was floated to coach Rob Penney about his own future in the top job as rumours have begun to circle surrounding his chances of staying longer than the Kiwi's initial two-year deal.

Penney's contract is due to expire in June and the longer it goes without any white smoke coming from his employers, the vaccum created is being filled with all manner of speculation.

The rumour mill has abounded with tales of shake-ups on the horizon for Munster with forwards coach Anthony Foley and even Declan Kidney being mentioned, but the reality is that Penney wants to stay on. Nothing, though, has been confirmed regarding his future as he found himself having to outline this week.

"Things are progressing," Penney said but when pressed would say little more.

But Penney, of course, is not alone in not having his immediate plans for the future sorted out yet. A certain Paul O'Connell has still not put pen to paper, nor indeed has Keith Earls.

These situations are presumably not linked to how Penney's future is played out, but the Munster coach certainly made it clear that he is hopeful the totemic O'Connell will stay and undoubtedly see out his career with his home province while adding that neither he nor 34-year-old O'Connell's discussions were locked into a timeframe .

Fair enough, but until the situations are sorted out the danger is that off-field matters will continue to be more of a factor than what happens on the park even though Munster have lately been showing plenty of that 'old dog' about them as was seen most prominently in their last-gasp 18-17 European win at Perpignan last month.

In a finish reminiscent of the Ronan O'Gara era – though admittedly this time it wasn't down to a dramatic drop goal –Munster pulled it out of the fire with just over a minute left on the clock and after O'Connell – well he had to be involved really – had helped with a turnover, they ran the ball and JJ Hanrahan got over in the corner.

High drama, but typical Munster and then a week later they did it again, this time seeing off the Scarlets 16-10 when Ronan O'Mahony touched down in the dying moments against an admittedly 13-man Welsh side.

Penney's squad has only shipped one defeat in the PRO12 and that was to Treviso in September, and last failed to win at Edinburgh in October, so they do come to Ravenhill with some impressive form behind them.

True, the coach has made 12 changes to the side which saw off Connacht last week but he has done so with the pressing need to now ramp things up for next week's European visit to Gloucester.

Even though injury is keeping Donnacha Ryan, Conor Murray, Simon Zebo, JJ Hanrahan and Earls out – former Ulster Academy player Sean Dougall is also missing – their core of traditionally hard-nosed enforcers are back with O'Connell in the engine room alongside Donncha O'Callaghan.

And with tonight's skipper Peter O'Mahony in an equally abrasive back row with James Coughlan and Tommy O'Donnell – O'Donnell's match-up with Chris Henry will certainly be interesting in the wake of Sean O'Brien's injury – making up the remainder of the breakaway unit, the visitors have physicality aplenty up front. BJ Botha also returns to his former club though he is on the bench, while their backline includes Ian Keatley, Felix Jones, Andrew Conway and Casey Laulala.

Yet another win, ugly or not, can surely only strengthen Penney's hand.

Belfast Telegraph

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