Sometimes you hear something said in a post-match press-conference and its true meaning isn’t immediately clear.
There’s no doubt professional coaches have become very good at using the media for their advantage – and there’s equally no doubt that some do it better than others.
But when New South Wales Waratahs coach Rob Penney uttered the words, “if other people think I’m not the right person, I’m not going to stand in the way” toward the end of Saturday night’s press-conference after the record 61-10 loss to the Brumbies in Canberra, there was a little bit of discussion among those in attendance.
What was in instant agreement was the Penney wasn’t throwing the towel in.
He’d already made it abundantly clear what the players meant to him, and why the task of rebuilding the Waratahs into the powerhouse a professional team from the country’s most populous state really should be was one he is well and truly committed to.
So why would he make such an admission, especially when there really hadn’t been much talk of pressure?
Yes, the Waratahs had conceded a record losing score to the Queensland Reds in Round 1, but this was not even an hour after fulltime in Round 2 of a season which the Waratahs have deliberately underspent, and in which they’ve shed upwards of 1500 games of Super Rugby experience.
Even now, a couple of days after the 51-point loss, is Penney really under any pressure? And how could anyone really be expected to come in cold and do better with an understrength squad now also battling an injury crisis?
His tone from the outset was one of concern.
“They’re a shattered group at the moment,” he said, matter-of-factly.
“We’ve just got to be careful with our language and how we treat them for the next period of time, because we’ve got a game on Friday night to look forward to.
“We’ve got to get back on the horse and prepare for what will be a massive challenge Friday night at home against the Force.
“From the outside in, you’d say that’s a tough challenge,” Penney said, to the question of how you bounce back from a performance like that on Saturday night.
“To a degree, it is. The challenge is there, it’s an obvious one, and it’s one we’ve got to rise to. There’s no use moping about it, the damage has been done. The performance, we can’t change anything in that now.
“We can reflect on it, we can learn from it, and endeavour to grow and be better on Friday night.”
Coach Dan McKellar, as passionate a Queenslander as you’ll find, loves what the Brumbies call ‘Tah Week’ more than a good chunk of his playing group.
He gets the rivalry, he gets the history, and he thrives on being part of the story of the contest. Seven straight wins against the Hume Highway rivals suggests he rather quite enjoys the results list, too.
But McKellar was quick to jump to Penney’s defence.
“No, I feel plenty of sympathy for them. Because where they’re at … I don’t think it’s Rob responsibility over how they’ve functioned and worked as a club over the last few years.
“He’s a good coach, he’s shown that in the past, he’s had success. He’s got outstanding assistant coaches.
“They’re a very young group, and at this level, if you’re inexperienced and get put under pressure, there’s lot less time, a lot less space, it’s hard to function,” McKellar said.
“For Australian rugby, we want a strong Waratahs side, and they’ve had a tough first couple of weeks, but they’ll bounce back.”
Which brings us to Penney’s surprise concession.
Tom Decent from the Sydney Morning Herald went down an uncomfortable – but not unfair – line of questioning about how a turnaround can be achieved, and what sort of impact can two record defeats have on a young squad, before adding the point of how he sells it to fans and supporters that he is the right man for the job?
“Yeah, well… I love these boys and I’m doing my best,” the coach said.
“If other people think I’m not the right person, I’m not going to stand in the way. What’s right for the group is the important thing.”
So what did he really mean in that moment, having already made it clear he’s committed to the job?
Well, that penny (no pun intended) dropped for me later on Sunday.
In my humble opinion, this was Penney issuing the challenge to the powers that be at NSW Rugby, that success is not going to be immediate with a playing group this young, and you’ve got some serious thinking to do around how the professional program in NSW is run.
Penney would have told them – long and hard, I suspect – that if they’re prepared to let all the experience walk out the door at the end of the 2020 season, then the turnaround cannot and will not happen overnight, especially with deliberate underspending with regard to the playing roster.
This was Penney effectively saying, ‘well, I told you so’. He’s almost daring them to make a knee-jerk reaction in search of instant success.
Worryingly, while the SMH reported on Monday that Waratahs chief executive Paul Doorn has said Penney is not in immediate danger, the words “but sources … told the Herald that members of the NSWRU board are already canvassing alternate coaching options, both in Australia and overseas” followed soon after.
Frankly, this would be madness.
Eddie Jones, Steve Hansen, even Scott Robertson would battle to turn around the fortune of the Waratahs right now, especially when their issues run a lot deeper than missing tackles or not making the gain line on the field.
NSW Rugby need to buckle themselves in and give Rob Penney all the support he needs to do the job they employed him to do.
Otherwise, they’re an even bigger part of the Waratahs’ problems than they were before.
Brett McKay is back writing for The Roar, and is also writing weekly rugby columns for ABC Sport.