Thursday 22 August 2019

Cian Tracey: 'Bleyendaal can repay Munster's faith and force his way into World Cup frame'

Tyler Bleyendaal during Munster Rugby Squad Training. Photo: Sportsfile
Tyler Bleyendaal during Munster Rugby Squad Training. Photo: Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

In a career that has unfortunately been littered with false starts, Tyler Bleyendaal's latest return to fitness and form is another reminder of why Munster stuck by him through thick and thin.

One neck injury would have ended some careers, two would have finished most others, yet here is Bleyendaal, defying the odds precisely at a time when Munster need him most.

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Professional sport is a ruthless business and when Bleyendaal suffered a recurrence of the problem that delayed his arrival in Limerick, and also put the initial move in jeopardy, few would have blamed the club if they had decided to cut their losses and not renew the out-half's contract beyond the current season.

Joey Carbery is the first-choice 10 going forward, yet his troublesome hamstring injury highlighted the need to have another international-class option to step into the breach.

Bleyendaal unquestionably fits that description and the offer of a fresh deal unsurprisingly followed.

Such is the relentlessly competitive environment in New Zealand, the All Blacks are used to losing exciting young players to overseas clubs.

There was genuine disappointment however, when a then 22-year old Bleyendaal, who captained New Zealand to the 2010 U-20 World Cup, upped sticks for Ireland.

Widely spoken about as the heir apparent to Dan Carter's throne at the Crusaders and the All Blacks, their loss was Munster's and potentially Ireland's gain. Bleyendaal is a hugely respected figure in the Munster squad, which for a player who has struggled to stay fit is a mark of a real leader.

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Even though he has missed so much action, Bleyendaal has been kept involved in day-to-day matters, and is highly-regarded for his video analysis work.

Munster and their supporters have stayed patient with the 28-year-old because they have seen enough flashes of his undoubted quality.

His ability on the pitch has never really been in doubt, but many could have justifiably questioned how a player who had suffered two such serious neck injuries could fully trust his body to withstand the increasing rigours of professional rugby.

Bleyendaal's response in that regard has also been emphatic. The win over Edinburgh, in particular, illustrated just how much he isn't second guessing himself in contact.

Such was the beauty off Keith Earls' late match-winning try, it is easy to forget that it all came about because Bleyendaal rescued an overthrown lineout. A player with any lingering doubts over his neck doesn't manage to do so with defenders coming flying off the line.

Then there was the manner in which Bleyendaal defended in the end-game to see out the victory.

With the clock in the red and Edinburgh racking up the phases, Bleyendaal made five tackles in that almost five-minute spell, never shirking his defensive responsibilities.

Last week's win over Cardiff Blues was an altogether different kind of test. On the quick 4G surface at Irish Independent Park, Bleyendaal demonstrated the other qualities to his game as he masterfully pulled the strings and kicked well from the tee.

Like most Kiwi out-halves, Bleyendaal always seems to have an extra second or two on the ball.

His natural inclination will always be to play heads-up rugby, which is helped by his exquisite range of passing, but he also varies the point of attack with his clever kicking game.

Crucially, he also plays in a similar style to Carbery, which means that if Munster's first-choice 10 does miss next weekend's Champions Cup semi-final against Saracens, Johann van Graan does not have to rip up the script and alter the game-plan.

Bleyendaal linked really well with Conor Murray, who also looked back to his best as the scrum-half had a hand in four (one scored and three assists) of Munster's six tries.

Van Graan will be encouraged by that ahead of the European showdown and the growing relationship between two influential half-backs will not go unnoticed by Joe Schmidt.

Barring injury, Johnny Sexton and Carbery will travel to Japan as two of the three out-halves. Right now, there isn't much to choose between Jack Carty and Ross Byrne for the third spot, but Bleyendaal may yet have a say. Despite not yet having been capped since becoming Irish-qualified last year, Bleyendaal has spent time in camp before he was eligible to line out for his adopted country.

That in itself is indicative of how highly Joe Schmidt rates his fellow Kiwi. It's a smart approach that he has used with others who've then went on to wear the green jersey. Had Bleyendaal not been regularly hampered by injury, he'd almost certainly already have played for Ireland by now.

He faces a big task in attempting to force his way into the equation for the World Cup this late in the day, but if Bleyendaal's gutsy determination to get to this point has taught us anything, it is: 'never write him off'.

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