Developing homegrown talent a focus for Waratahs' new Kiwi coach Penney

Super Rugby
by Iain Payten

NSW Rugby boss Andrew Hore said a decade of underinvestment in Australian coach development had contributed to the appointment of another New Zealander to the head coach role of the Waratahs.

But Hore said the hiring of Rob Penney was part of the plan to develop local coaching talent, and bring through Aussie coaches who would be at the required level when Penney’s tenure ends in three years.

Penney, 55, replaces New Zealander Daryl Gibson after the former Canterbury, Munster and NTT Docomo coach was the last man standing in a coaching search process that began with list of 62 names, and a short-list of 12 interviewees.

The announcement was made in Japan on Wednesday, where Penney is currently coaching Toyota Shokki. 

He will be joining the Waratahs in late November but said he’s already juggling both roles and is in contact with Tahs assistants Chris Whitaker and Steve Tandy.

Penney has a strong CV, having coached Canterbury to four NPC titles between 2008 and 2011, New Zealand under 20s in 2012 and made the Heineken Cup semi-finals with Munster in 2013 and 2014.

But the appointment of another Kiwi head coach at NSW immediately drew criticism and was addressed by Hore at a media conference in Tokyo.

Hore said the Waratahs had originally intended to replace Gibson with a locally-produced coach in Simon Cron, but had to make new plans when Cron elected to move on and coach in Japan, just months before Gibson’s surprise resignation in June.

The NSW Rugby boss said Penney’s appointment was, in part, due to his ability to not only bring through young Australian players, but assistant coaches as well, and Penney said his entire staff - which will be completed in the coming weeks with a forwards coach and S & C coach - would be Australian.

"Just because you bring in a foreign person doesn’t mean that you’re not still dedicated to that same outcome (of developing local coaches),” Hore said. 

"We did it with Scott Johnson at the Ospreys and he was fantastic in developing Welsh talent, Steve Tandy being one of them, when he was there.

"Remember we are probably making up for ten years of lack of investment in coaching development, and in Rob, we felt we had someone who had a proven track record with working with Tabai Matson, Scott Robertson etc, in bringing through and developing coaches. 

"So when I say development experience in that criteria, it wasn’t just players but with coaches as well. So from that end, the outcome is still the same. 

"We did have a path we were going to go down, which was about development from within. But that was removed from us, so like any tactical gameplay, we have had to adapt. But the outcome is still the same.

"Which is why we will be looking at that younger experience and how we can bring it through.

"The holes still remain though, below that, which we need to address, in and around what are we going to do to develop some of the younger talent that were interviewed in this process for example.”

Hore, who name-checked Sydney Uni’s Rob Taylor and Gordon’s Darren Coleman as quality coaches in the Shute Shield, said NSW Rugby would be investing more in coaching development.

Penney said he wouldn’t be bringing in staff.

“One of the requirements for me, and I’d like to think I have a bit of a history in Munster and Japan, is not bringing in people from outside. It’s trying to help people grow from within,” he said.

“I’m a big believer in people achieving their goals and I get a great thrill out of seeing not only the players but also staff members progressing through their careers. 

“So it will be Australian staffing and I think you’ll be hopefully be impressed by the calibre of people working with the boys.”

Though “nervous" he’s starting late in the pre-season Penney said he was keen to get on the ground at Daceyville and begin re-building a Waratahs squad that will be undergoing generational change, and be without Bernard Foley, Nick Phipps, Sekope Kepu, Curtis Rona and Israel Folau next year.

Hore said the Waratahs’ squad is about 80 per cent complete for 2020 - with negotiations ongoing with Karmichael Hunt for example - but said the wriggle room for contracts was positive for Penney to be able to try and draft in any desired players.

The Kiwi coach said he didn’t have a long list of targets and would focus, where possible, on trying to promote players through the Shute Shield and NRC pathway.

With Kepu departing, Penney was open in the need for a “dominant tighthead” prop and said he’d viewed the Waratahs scrum as a point of vulnerability in previous years.

"There's a definite need for a robust and dominating tighthead,” he said.

"If you look through the last couple of seasons in particular, when the pressure's really gone on around the scrum in particular, there's been frailty there and some fractures and on the back of just that element alone has caused some results to go against the Waratahs.

"So that is a key area of recruitment. There's been a bit of work done in that area and we're not far away from having the base of that area covered but there is a need to dig deeper and try to get a bit more depth.

"I want to look and canvas as many Australian-eligible boys that are floating around the rugby community before we look outside of that.

"The beauty is we've got a lot of good people back in Sydney doing a lot of that hard yards who know the breadth and depth of tighthead props in the Australian network, which is great.

"So they're putting a good list together.”

The Waratahs' 2018 change is being put in motion. Photo: Getty ImagesNo doubt looking to the absence of Folau and Taqele Naiyaravoro, Penney said he was also looking for a "powerful, robust outside back” who can finish tries and a further big ball-running back rower was also on his wish-list.

“There’s a lot of intellectual property and maturity that’s been lost form the Waratahs in the last 12 months and at the end of the cycle,” Penney said.

Penney said he would assess the candidates to step into the vacancy at no.10 following Foley’s departure, but all are young and inexperienced: Mack Mason, and Junior Wallabies playmakers Will Harrison and Ben Donaldson.

Given they’re still all relatively green, Penney said he hoped people would show patience and give them time to become Super Rugby players.

"The 9s and 10s haven't got a great deal of experience,” Penney said. 

"That's going to be an area of rapid growth I hope, in the short to medium term.

"There will be inconsistencies in performance but we're going to back young boys there, good young Australian talent that have had experience in the World Cup at the 20s program.

"I just hope people are a little patient and not too hard on them early on because it does take time and it's a pressure-cooker competition.

"The ability of those young men to cope with that will take a little bit of time."

Penney said he'd spoken to Gibson, who said there was a "good core of young men passionate about having success".

"(He said) Sydney rugby is crying out for a bit of success," Penney said.

"Not an easy environmnet to work in. Need to have the turtle shell on, the deflectors, at times. That's the reaility of  professional rugby and I'm stepping into the environment with eyes wide open

"I wouldn't be doing it if I didn't believe I could really make a difference.

"I'm not being arrogant. I think I can work with people and get young people to achieve their goals."

Penney said he'd played with Michael Lynagh at Bennetton in Italy and cited the former Wallabies no.10 as an exemplar of what he had always viewed as "Australian rugby",

"Look back at some great Aussie teams...elements of that free spirit, lot of confidence, highly intellectual and having structures so they can reach their potential," he said.