Thursday 18 January 2018

Bleyendaal aims to emerge from giant's shadow

Tyler Bleyendaal is trying to put his own stamp on Munster. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Tyler Bleyendaal is trying to put his own stamp on Munster. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

You can understand how Buzz Aldrin resented not being the first man to walk on the moon much more than he appreciated being the second.

It's a competitive thing. Your achievement is immediately clouded when you see the other footsteps ahead of you.

Tyler Bleyendaal is walking in someone else's shoes, too, no matter how much he wants to hide it or deny it. So was Ian Keatley before him; he stumbled too often.

Bleyendaal's problem has just been getting his shoes on; it says much for Munster's decline that he was bought to replace Ronan O'Gara, not by the present coach or the previous coach.

Almost three years of injury problems have mocked his desire to show Munster supporters what he can bring to the team.

Europe has passed Munster by too in recent seasons; the legend that is O'Gara shadows even more menacingly over this game now in his guise as Racing 92's defensive coach.

Last May, Bleyendaal was at a club dinner and a short video snapshot of O'Gara's career highlights was played. The room lurched from calm cheer to convivial carousel.

"It was impressive," reports the now 26-year-old one-time Junior All Black. "Jeez, you could feel the energy of everyone in the room."

Of course, having spent much of the previous two disappointing European campaigns watching Munster's slow and steady decline from a vantage point amongst the Thomond faithful, he didn't need to be reminded about the side's storied past and one of its chief standard bearers.

"There's not much we can do about him now," says the quietly determined playmaker. "He's on the Racing side now and he is going to bring a lot to their performance, I am sure. But for us, and myself, it's purely focused on this week. What plan we can come up with to compete against a great Racing side.

"It doesn't unnerve me. What he achieved was obviously outstanding and probably unmatchable. For myself, I can't be distracted by that kind of thinking.

"Munster are coming off a big and proud successful history in the Heineken Cup. We were disappointing last year and we knew that because we had a good opportunity to perform and we didn't. It was a tough year because the effort and the preparation we put in, it wasn't reflected on the field and with the results. But again this year we are turning in a great direction and we have a new management, a bit of fresh feel.

"Some new combinations are in there but we are excited to get this European competition kicked off this weekend."

Nobody more so than the 2010 Junior World Cup-winning captain; even if he is denied a reunion with his old Canterbury tutor, Dan Carter.

Bleyendaal's injury woes are well-told by now; signed in May 2014 by Rob Penney but sidelined with a serious neck injury even before he arrived; a quad injury then ruined last term. He has displayed a steely resolve despite the mental and physical anguish.

"It never crossed my mind to stop. I never regretted my decision to join Munster. I was always trying to get healthy and get playing because that is what I came here to do. I came here for a new challenge.

"It was frustrating, I won't lie. I was getting extremely close to playing every game and then there'd be a setback and it was a tough while. But the support in the team was fantastic and the community here is very unique.

"The support for Munster is there, you see it around the town if you go and walk, there's a bit of anticipation but whether that support was there or not I was on a mission to get back.

"Now I'm just trying to perform and help the team be successful because that's how we'll repay our supporters."

Munster need to score tries to win tomorrow at the home of the French champions; Jaco Taute comes in as the only change and Bleyendaal helped create his try last week when Ian Keatley also arrived as a playmaking option.

"We have ball players across the whole backline. Obviously having Ian there was great. I shifted a channel wider, it was quite enjoyable. But no matter what combination we have, we need to get to that space more often." Verdict: Racing 92

Racing 92 - B Dulin; J Rokocoko, H Chavancy, A Tuitavke, J Imhoff; J Goosen, M Machenaud (c); E Ben Arous, C Chat, B Tameifuna, L Nakarawa, M Carizza, W Lauret, Y Nyanga, C Masoe. Reps: V Lacombe, V Afatia, C Gomes Sa, F van der Merwe, T Dubarry, J Hart, R Tales, A Vulivuli.

Munster - S Zebo; D Sweetnam, J Taute, R Scannell, R O'Mahony; T Bleyendaal, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, N Scannell, J Ryan, D Ryan, B Holland, P O'Mahony (c), T O'Donnell, CJ Stander. Reps: A Conway, B Scott, S Archer, R Copeland, J O'Donoghue, D Williams, I Keatley, D Goggin.

Ref - W Barnes (England)

Racing 92 v Munster,

Live, Sky Sports 2, 3.15 tomorrow

Irish Independent

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