Friday 23 February 2018

'He was very encouraging' - Tyler pays tribute to Foley's faith as he continues to lead Munster resurgence

After a litany of injuries, Tyler Bleyendaal is starting to look right at home in Munster
Tyler Bleyendaal of Munster in action. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Tyler Bleyendaal of Munster in action. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Brendan fanning

Many years ago a neighbour went through seven kinds of torture over a new car. It was a German model and even then we were conditioned to the idea that German was a byword for efficiency, so it was quite the topic of conversation. If it wasn't the fuel pump it was the fan belt, on and on until the poor man was afraid to drive to work for fear he'd get stuck halfway.

The best description the motor dealer could come up with was that it was a "Monday morning car". We hadn't heard that one before. And we thought of it at some point on Tyler Bleyendaal's journey from serial crock to smooth-running machine.

The only thing worse than a player getting banjaxed soon after his arrival in a new club is a player who gets banjaxed soon after signing, and before he has even arrived. When the situation is compounded by a whole new set of problems when he does actually land then you wonder have you just backed the wrong horse.

In fact, Munster had a bit of history with this fella. In 2011, they looked to sign him up on a short-term deal around the time of the World Cup. He was just starting out his Super Rugby career with the Crusaders.

"As it happened, I got injured in the final game of the ITM Cup, so it didn't eventuate," he says. Well, there's a thing.

In April 2015, we remember heading down to Naas to watch Bleyendaal play for Munster 'A' against Ulster 'A'. Normally you wouldn't open the curtains if an 'A' game was on in the back garden, so this was all about seeing if the outhalf could stay upright long enough to tick the box marked 'job done.' He did. It was the tail end of the season, and we headed home wondering if 2015/'16 could bring better news. It did - at first.

His full debut followed in September, and he got another four games under his belt until Christmas brought more trouble. It was a heavy-duty neck operation that cost him season one; then a limpet of a quad injury that took an age to shake off in season two. "Yeah, it was stop-start but I guess it was down to the kicking, which is paramount to the position," he says of the quad that wouldn't settle. "I was quite able-bodied otherwise - even running, I was quite able, but kicking was slowing things down. So that was frustrating because kicking is something I enjoy doing and it's pretty much needed in the position, so that's why it was frustrating, just not knowing where the endpoint was at times. Again, we put a plan together and we got it sorted and now I'm pretty happy with it."

If you imagine yourself having taken a great leap into the unknown and headed to the far side of the world, with fiancée Laura in tow, only to be unable to deliver on your end of the deal, then the stress must be massive. Bleyendaal hadn't exactly been run out of Christchurch. Clearly he was talented and it was in the club's interests he stayed, but two reasons governed his decision to quit: the queue ahead of him at the Crusaders comprised Tom Taylor, Colin Slade and Dan Carter; and he wanted to make a big move rather than simply shift to another franchise in New Zealand. Having no experience of the world beyond Australia, Thailand and Japan - all places the Kiwis would consider local - the prospect of a move to English-speaking Europe, and a world rugby brand in Munster, was attractive.

Then the neck injury struck before he could pack a bag. With punters wondering if Munster would simply shift into reverse and look elsewhere, Anthony Foley was explicit in saying they would stand by their man.

"Interesting scenario it was," Bleyendaal recalls. "But it was obviously very pleasing and reassuring that I guess from my side I never really had any doubts about how I was going to come back after surgery. Everything was really positive. It was obviously a big decision but at the same time the success rate was very high, so I was confident I was going to come and I was going to, you know, join Munster. To hear that (from Foley) was very reassuring and I think we were all aware it was going to be a long-term thing that we were trying to get, so I wasn't coming over for one season. I was going to try and come, get established and I was committing to Munster. He saw that and he understood that. He was very encouraging."

'Long-term' is a description Bleyendaal uses a few times in describing his relationship with Munster. It's not a common theme in professional sport, but it's a pretty handy crutch if you can't play and you need to retain your sanity. "I was doing a lot of training but just not being able to contribute on the field," he says. "You feel like you're here, you put a lot of effort in you want to be on the field with team-mates and contribute and try and perform for everyone and for yourself as well, so it was frustrating. But I never lost hope. I knew it was a time thing. A lot of players go through bad runs with injury - it was just my turn I guess. Luckily now we lived through it and I'm enjoying it now."

Is he what? If two destroyed seasons was the south pole then what has unfolded since last September is the other end of the world. Bleyendaal has played 18 competitive games, all of them as a starter and 12 of them to full term. He has never been scoreless. In the Guinness Pro12, he is top of the charts on conversions and try assists, and second (to Steve Shingler) on total points scored.

In the Champions Cup, where he is 77 per cent off the second highest number of goals kicked (behind Owen Farrell), his man of the match performance against Glasgow in Thomond Park was a statement for himself and the group. For the wrong reasons it was a unique occasion, and given the emotion of the day - a week after Anthony Foley's death - you wonder what would have unfolded had Bleyendaal not been on the money in so many respects. He got them out of the blocks with the first try, and kept all the moving parts oiled before handing over to Ian Keatley in the final quarter. It was a sumptuous performance. Others would follow.

His relationship with Foley was based on give and take. They didn't see eye to eye on all things tactical but got on well enough together to work out the best solution. It's a source of comfort to Bleyendaal that the way Munster have turned a corner reflects where Foley was taking them. Moreover he maintains that the postponed game against Racing, in round one, was to be the launch-pad after the tonking by Leinster in the Aviva the previous week. Instead it had to wait until Glasgow came to Limerick. Since then their form has been like Bleyendaal's fitness: transformed.

"It's very hard to explain," he says. "Sometimes you just have a bad run. I think maybe there was a transition from a lot of experience to a lot of youth. You've seen this season the amount of guys that have come from the Academy, or a lot of first caps, young guys getting a chance. If you look back five years the squad had been incredibly experienced with a lot of caps and maybe we have half that now.

"A lot of leaders have left but we've developed new leaders. That is a big part of it and now we're just getting more confident with each other in the way we're trying to do things. That's what we were trying to drive on earlier in the season, to back yourself and to have a go, and to do it together."

When he arrived, injured, it was January 2015: cold, wet and dark. He knew Irish people would be friendly but beyond that wasn't too sure what to expect. Now he sees Limerick as the perfect base to strike out and see towns and villages that are a good deal different to home. For himself and his fiancée the pain of the early days is in the past.

"The first six months were very tough. Just re-adjusting. Not having her close network of friends and family here. She made the trip back for a month the first year. Her parents have visited for Christmas. We've started to really enjoy the travel and just becoming settled. It took a while but we're really happy here and excited for what might happen."

Indeed. Like becoming Ireland-qualified in January. Both his parents represented New Zealand in volleyball, and their son captained his country at an under 20 World Cup. He parked the All Black dream when he signed for Munster. He is reminded about the Ireland eligibility on a regular basis, but unsurprisingly is concentrating first on what he might achieve in Munster.

As for the Monday morning car, its problems eventually were sorted out. And it gave our neighbour many years of happy motoring. As Tyler Bleyendaal might put it, you need to be in for the long haul.

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