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'They haven't learned anything': Crusaders' Penney opens on Tahs - and why he 'feels really sorry' for Coleman

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29th February, 2024
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They will be rivals this weekend at Super Round, but Rob Penney says he feels “sorry” for his coaching counterpart Darren Coleman.

Penney, who was sacked by the NSW Rugby Union board early in his second season in charge in 2021, also believes his former employers have failed to come to terms with the task ahead of them of trying to reemerge as a genuine Super Rugby competition threat.

The Crusaders coach’s comments come as Coleman fights for his future, with reports earlier this month stating the NSW board would determine his fate beyond this season by the end of March.

“If that’s accurate, which I understand it is, they haven’t learned anything, have they?” Penney told The Roar.

“I feel really sorry for Darren. No one should be put under that sort of pressure under the situation he went into. It was always going to be a project.”

It was a little under three years ago that Penney was ruthlessly turfed out by the Waratahs.

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After a winless start to the season, the NSW board cut the New Zealander adrift after just five matches in the season. It left Penney livid and surprised, having been tasked with rebuilding the side following a front and back door cleanout at Daceyville.

In his place stepped up current assistant coaches Chris Whitaker and Jason Gilmore, but the Waratahs failed to win a match all season.

While Whitaker and Gilmore both applied for the head coaching role, the NSW Rugby board eventually turned to Coleman.

Initially, everything seemed rosy as the Waratahs knocked off the Crusaders and Highlanders on their way to a quarter-final finish in his first season.

Waratahs coach Darren Coleman has until the end of March to prove his worth to the NSW Rugby board. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

But then the cracks started to appear and, after a less than convincing 2023, which culminated in some direct and tough feedback from the playing group despite another quarter-final finish, the NSW Rugby board decided they wanted to determine Coleman’s fate by the end of March to give everyone clarity.

If that wasn’t pressure enough for Coleman, the Waratahs, who lost first-up to the Reds in Brisbane, have one of the toughest draws in Super Rugby, with three straight matches against New Zealand opposition to be followed by a trip to Fiji to take on the Drua.

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It’s partly why Penney plans on seeing Coleman on Friday ahead of Saturday’s encounter in Melbourne.

“We’ll probably catch up on the sidelines,” he said.

“I reached out to him when I left just offering anything I could do to support his incoming. We’ll touch base tomorrow and go from there.”

Penney admits he “wasn’t overly happy with the way it ended” with the Waratahs but added he “moved on really quickly”.

“There’s no point in dwelling on the past,” he said.

“They missed an opportunity in my head. But I moved on quickly and got onto the next task.”

He added: “You don’t forget about the whole experience. There’s some good people there, and some people I’m still in contact with.

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“The whole experience wasn’t bad. The way it concluded was a shame. As you know, a lot of it wasn’t in the control of the coaching staff. Someone’s got to pay the price, I guess, and that was me.

“I’m not concerned about that part of my coaching history at all.”

Rob Penney of the Crusaders looks on prior to the Super Rugby Pacific Pre-Season Match between Crusaders and Highlanders at Methven Recreational Reserve on February 16, 2024 in Methven, New Zealand. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

So how did Penney end up at the Crusaders given his ugly end at the Waratahs?

“I think because I’m a good coach,” he said.

He will need to be too given the shoes he is filling, with Penney tasked with continuing the Crusaders juggernaut after Scott Robertson led the side to seven-straight Super Rugby titles.

But Penney, who was an assistant under Robbie Deans almost two decades ago, isn’t concerned.

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“I’ve just got to be myself,” he said. “It’s not difficult.

“The past is the past, the future is the future, and we just get on and endeavour to replicate what’s been done in the good times and nullify any of the tougher times that the organisation has had occasionally.

“I can only do what I can do and I’m surrounded by great people and the players are awesome, so it’s not a burden.

“There’s always room for evolution. Not revolution but evolution. If you stand still you get overtaken is the old cliché.

“We’re looking to progress and develop. Look after the things that are key components and the core of the success of the Crusaders, and slowly nurture and grow other elements where there’s opportunity.”

Nor has Penney got his guard up with Robertson.

“He’s welcome any time, and we talk a lot,” he said. “But he doesn’t interfere.”

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Rob Penney said he won’t try and reinvent the wheel at the Crusaders following Scott Robertson (R) and Richie Mo’unga’s departures. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

After a narrow first-up defeat to the Chiefs in Hamilton, plenty expect the Crusaders to roll into Australia and knock over the Waratahs comfortably.

Penney, however, isn’t one of them.

“I’m enjoying the progress we’re making over this side of the ditch and hopefully it’ll be reflected in the performance,” he said.

“Obviously, the Tahs are a really good side and they’re having their own challenges but we’re certainly not underestimating the battle.”

Helping their task of getting back on track this weekend is the return of All Blacks prop Fletcher Newell.

Newell has been brought in at tight-head prop after Test teammate Tamaiti Williams pulled his hamstring after making a line break out wide.

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But his replacement showcases the embarrassment of riches the Crusaders have at their disposal.

“The level of talent is, I was going to say without peer but it’s probably not, but it’s right up there,” Penney said.

“That’s a blessing and it’s also a reflection on all the great work that numerous people do behind the scenes to ensure there’s a great succession of worthy talent coming through. It’s a joy to be back and involved with it.”

As for whether victory against the Waratahs would be any sweeter given his history with the Australian franchise?

“Any win’s sweet. It won’t be more or less because it’s the Tahs,” he said.

“It’s not about that at all. I’m just coaching a group and trying to do the best thing by them and if I start going down a pathway of selfishness, that’s not going to do anyone any good.”

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