Munster out-half Bleyendaal as resilient as the city of his birth
Tyler Bleyendaal has had to be patient during his battle to show what he can do for Munster
Watching Tyler Bleyendaal's clinical influence in the Champions Cup quarter-final win over Edinburgh two weekends ago, it was easy to forget that here was a man in his fifth season in red. That's what happens when you are signed as the star attraction, and then, through a series of unfortunate events, find yourself in rugby's equivalent of a cast of thousands. Munster's roster at the start of this season featured five out-halves: Joey Carbery, JJ Hanrahan, Ian Keatley, Bill Johnston and Bleyendaal. It wasn't meant to be like this.
May 2014. More than a year out from Ireland spinning over to England for the World Cup. More than two years before the rugby world changed shape in Munster with the death of Anthony Foley, who had been counselling Bleyendaal long distance when the new man was looking like the nearly man, rehabbing a neck injury back in New Zealand. "Yeah, he was great," he says of Foley. And a bit longer still before the historic win over New Zealand in Chicago.
Bleyendaal is not just comfortably qualified to play for Ireland at this stage, he's been here long enough to sound Irish. Except he doesn't. Measured and quietly spoken, there is not a trace of anything other than Kiwi in his accent. He's still all Christchurch.
Bleyendaal was back there last month when that city's second horrendous tragedy unfolded. Or rather he was mid-air on a flight back to Ireland when a gunman ran amok in two mosques. By the time he landed, the awfulness of it all had him wondering what his home town had done to be revisited by stuff like this. First time round, in 2011, he had been training with the Crusaders when the earthquakes struck.
"(I remember) not being able to move, literally pinned up against the table because the ground's shaking so violently," he says. "We'd experienced earthquakes so this is just another one. Then you're driving home and there's liquefaction piling out of the ground, roads blocked, traffic bumper to bumper and then you're realising no, this is pretty serious. Just a race to get home to see if the family was alright.
"We had pretty much a week without power, people from the country were supplying us with water, bringing in fresh water. We just had to make do for a while. Rugby was put on hold for a week. The city kind of showed its resilience. I think being a part of the rugby team, it helped to have a focus, to get on with things. It was a long recovery. The city still is recovering."
Bleyendaal could write the book on long recoveries. Between signing the deal with Munster - while still tipping away with the Crusaders - and eventually getting a run in Naas in a midweek game for Munster A versus Leinster A, 11 months had passed. Naturally enough given the trickiness of the neck operation, the issue was not when he would play, but if.
"Obviously it was a serious injury but we were confident that the rehab was going to go well. It was just a matter of extremely poor timing, I guess, signing a contract and then arriving here unable to perform on the pitch. It was reassuring to know he (Foley) had my back and that the rehab was going to go well, and that there was time to get fit. There was no rush; it's great as a player not to be rushed back from a serious injury, although the situation may call for it at some stage and you're thinking, I've really got to get out there.
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"I'm itching to get out and show what I can do, I've moved to the other side of the world for this. But they were very patient and I was very grateful for that."
The patience extended to his subsequent issues, first with a quad injury that took an age to clear up, and then another neck operation. The aggregate was that his stellar season of 2016/17, which saw Munster lose to Saracens in the Champions Cup semi-final in the Aviva, stood out as much because of the amount of rugby he played as its quality.
"Yeah, I had a bit of time off," he says with impressive understatement. "I had the quad injury and that wasn't great. We probably could have handled it better because I seemed to just push it too fast, I think. Then, another neck occurrence. They just showed great patience."
But it was hard not feel, eh . . . "Guilty?" he asks. "On the field, you want to be out there and performing. You want to earn your keep but I've never slacked off, off the field, and I've always put in the effort to try and make the starting team better and if I'm not training at all, then do my work with the coaches and try and provide those options. You've got to keep busy in that regard to stay sane. It's just having the belief that you're going to get back fit and then be able to perform."
Bleyendaal is considered a bit of a brain-box around the Munster camp. You wonder then how much he is consulted about the creative side of their game, which is lacking. Despite better depth than at any time since they were winning trophies, all of eight seasons ago, Munster haven't tacked on the attacking game to capitalise on what is a fine set-piece. So it was interesting last week to hear Johann van Graan declare himself open to the idea of freshening up the coaching roster. Having signed on for another two years himself it remains to be seen who else will share the journey. And what direction it will take.
Bleyendaal maintains the players are not restricted to playing rugby only when they have left sight of their own posts. The line is that it's an evolutionary thing, this willingness to embrace some risk in attack, but it's a slow burn. Friday night in Treviso suggested there might be some increase in heat. It was a very good win for an understrength side so hopefully it will become the norm.
"There's always licence to play what we see," he says. "If teams are going to put four guys back then of course you want to attack the space that's there. Obviously we have our DNA, that's our set-piece and we get a lot of penalties and we have a great kicking game with a great chase, but if the space is there to run, of course we have the licence to go. As a squad we're still developing but we've come a long way now. It's about playing what we see in front of us, and solve the problems on the way."
Against Saracens, those problems will be coming thick and fast. If Rassie Erasmus reckoned Munster were not far enough along in their development - and he was right - to cope with Saracens two years ago, then Van Graan must know he can't read from the same script. His out-half on Saturday says: "I think from that game we've realised that they are the benchmark and at the level you need to be at and then to perform, we've got to find the balance. I thought our kicking game was on point but we were probably too proactive with kicking and then we piled in and we did a great job, but to a point.
"You've still got to finish those last 20 minutes of the game and that's where they were stronger than us. We put so much into it up until that point, and then they got turnovers and when they got their opportunities, they scored. Then we move to chasing the game type of mentality and that's when they become more dangerous. I think we learned it's about the balance and it's about trying to create the opportunities and being able to see them and take them, wherever they may come. We need to be ruthless with the chances because that's what they are. They're ruthless and they do get in good areas of the pitch to put the pressure on. It's going to be one of those battles."
And Joe Schmidt will be as keen an observer as anyone in red. Bleyendaal says he doesn't hear a lot from the national coach, and his run in the Ireland camp is a couple of seasons ago now. Given the carnage that attends this game, that could change by the autumn. Munster would be happy for his best game here and now.
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