Tuesday 17 September 2019

Emerging leader Bleyendaal loving belated chance to live up to the hype

Tyler Bleyendaal is showing the sort of form for Munster that could see him emerge as a genuine rival to Johnny Sexton and Paddy Jackson when he qualifies for Ireland in 2018. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Tyler Bleyendaal is showing the sort of form for Munster that could see him emerge as a genuine rival to Johnny Sexton and Paddy Jackson when he qualifies for Ireland in 2018. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Listening to Tyler Bleyendaal talk about Munster's performance levels against Leinster being "non-negotiable", it becomes clear that the New Zealander's leadership credentials are now firmly established at the province.

He is deep into the third season of a deeply frustrating stint in Ireland and only now are fans and team-mates really getting to know what kind of player the man schooled at Dan Carter's Christchurch Boys - and who went on to captain the New Zealand U-20s - can be.

A year ago, he started against Leinster in Thomond Park during one of his attempted comebacks from injury and looked understandably tentative and sluggish as the province crashed to a dreaded home defeat to their rivals.

Within weeks, he was injured again as questions were raised over whether Munster might ever see the best of the Kiwi.

On Monday, a different Bleyendaal will take the field at the same venue. Although not 100pc injury-free, this season he has got a solid run of games at No 10, and a more commanding figure has emerged.

Last week's blip at Welford Road aside, he has kicked well from hand and from the tee, while his decision-making has impressed as he grows his relationship with Conor Murray.

Since Ronan O'Gara retired, Munster fans have fretted over the position of out-half.

Ian Keatley has had his moments, JJ Hanrahan burned bright but left and Johnny Holland was forced to retire.

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All the while, the man Anthony Foley signed on Rob Penney's recommendation was struggling to prove his fitness. Bleyendaal was always meant to lead Munster's backline; now we're beginning to see why.

And, as he grows in confidence, so does his authority increase.

"That's non-negotiable, we have to up our intensity massively," he says of his team's need to improve from their defeat to Leicester Tigers when they take on Leinster.

"It wasn't where we needed it to be at Welford Road and we're going to have to improve that for sure.

"We had a great performance the week before and we didn't perform last weekend. We were beaten by a better Leicester team on the night which is disappointing.

"We were building nicely, we had a good stretch of games and performances and, look, we just didn't turn up to the extent that we needed to.


"Then we still had a chance to win the game and that was even more disappointing that we felt we could have snatched the game at the end, but fair play to Owen Williams - he got the kick at the end.

"We'll be brutally honest. We have to fix certain aspects of our game and make big improvements because the challenge that Leinster will pose for us will be very similar, as well as their being a great attacking team too."

Understandably, Bleyendaal's focus is firmly on the future as he looks to put his years of injury problems behind him.

He arrived late in Ireland after suffering a career-threatening neck injury, and his comeback was thwarted by a subsequent quad problem that ruined last season.

People were beginning to give up on the man who was once talked of as a potential successor to Carter in a black jersey.

Now, his form is pointing towards him emerging as a rival to Johnny Sexton and Paddy Jackson when he qualifies to play for Ireland in 2018.

At the moment, he is just enjoying being fit and leading his team.

"We're having a decent run of games an as a team we are performing well and I am enjoying being out there, I must admit. I've spent plenty of time on the sideline," he says with a nod to his issues.

"We have a hectic schedule, but it's an exciting one a because it really defines how you are going to be at the end of the season and what you're playing for. It's a busy schedule but one we do look forward to.

"The block started there with the two Leicester matches and then obviously the Leinster game and Connacht game and then Europe after that.

"This game is special. You draw the calendar out and everyone looks at the Leinster matches home and away and we're lucky to have the home one on St Stephen's Day and in front of 26,000 people; it will be amazing.

"We are really looking forward to getting out there. We got past last weekend today and then it's stuck into training and the exciting challenge that Leinster will pose."

Given the fact that he has sat out so much of his Munster career to date, Bleyendaal is unperturbed by the impact Monday's match will have on his enjoyment of the festivities tomorrow when he and his partner Laura welcome her family to Limerick for Christmas dinner.

"One of the skills you learn over a rugby career is to learn how to switch on and switch off, and that happens during the week and even during the day," he says.

"Christmas is a special time of year and it's about trying to enjoy the day, the people around you and the occasion and then somehow switch on the next day or that evening and know that there is a big game and a big performance to be had the following day.

"It's part of our job and we just have to turn up.

"Laura has her parents and her brother over. Last year it was just the two of us so we have a few more people this year to share the turkey with. I played here (against Leinster) as well last year unfortunately.

"I am used to it now but previous to that it was a pretty different experience because (in New Zealand) we'd have been on a two- or three-week break now ahead of pre-season.

"This time of year the barbeques are out back home and it's a much more of an outdoor affair but it's nice to have different experiences."

One imagines, those experience were pretty low down the pecking order of reasons why Bleyendaal packed his bags in 2014 and moved across the world to link up with Munster.


Days like St Stephen's Day and battles with the likes of Leinster were much greater factors in that decision.

"It's a very special game, last year it was an awesome atmosphere and a disappointing result," he says.

"This year, again, it was a massive crowd at the Aviva and a big rivalry with a lot at stake and we're looking for a big improvement. We're excited, we can't wait."

After just 15 games in three seasons, it's no wonder he's enthusiastic.

Munster fans are beginning to feel the same way about their No 10.

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