Wednesday 11 December 2019

Supporters starting to see his best as Haley finds home

Friday Focus: Mike Haley

Mike Haley being tackled by Teddy Iribaren of Racing last weekend
Mike Haley being tackled by Teddy Iribaren of Racing last weekend

Daragh Small

Mike Haley is still bedding down his Munster roots but there is no doubt that he has settled into Johann van Graan's starting 15 and finally realised his potential in the team.

He came to Limerick with some big boots to fill, as Simon Zebo exited for Paris, and last weekend they went head-to-head when Racing 92 arrived at Thomond Park.

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Mike Haley going through his paces in training. Photo: Sportsfile
Mike Haley going through his paces in training. Photo: Sportsfile

But it was the former Sale man who flourished, giving the assist for Keith Earls to skate in down the left wing in the 40th minute. It was a crucial score just before half-time.

There was nobody better in attack: Haley made 119 metres from his 15 runs at the French defence. He made two clean breaks and beat eight defenders on one of the biggest days in the season.

On the opposite side of the ball, he was also outstanding, he only missed one tackle and made six successful attempts.

And although he did concede a solitary penalty, he was awarded man of the match at the end of the 21-21 Champions Cup epic.

"He is class, look at his performance on Saturday night: class, quick. Again, he's another good trainer. The guy wants to get better," said Haley's coach and compatriot Graham Rowntree.

"He'd be coming up to me, asking me how I think he can improve. It's typical of the class of the lads we have here. " He's a terrible scrummager though. He's another northern monkey, like myself."

The 25-year-old is a native of Preston and has scored seven tries in 33 appearances for Munster since he made the move from the AJ Bell Stadium.

He attended the famed rugby school Hartpury College on the outskirts of Gloucester and was only 13 when the English Premiership club began to take notice and offer him his chance in the game.

In his early teens Haley was actually a blindside flanker but he soon swapped to centre and his versatility meant he could play all the way across the backline when Sale finally signed him up. It wasn't until just before he turned 18 that he settled on the No 15 shirt and he went on to feel right at home in the full-back slot.

Reputation

He played over 100 times for Sale and in October 2014 he made his European debut against Munster as his reputation grew.

Haley was capped for the English Saxons and England XV but there was always a certain draw to the green jersey instead.

He spent a lot of his childhood in Kerry where his grandmother, Vivienne, hails from Tralee and that also meant for Munster links too.

Haley watched on as Munster claimed the ultimate success in Europe in 2006 and 2008, and it was a dream come true when the province approached him.

In February of last year, it emerged that Haley was set to join ranks at the High Performance Centre in UL.

"I'd broken through quite early at Sale and played over 100 games, but sometimes you want to find a new challenge," Haley said last year.

"You want something to bring the best out of you again, and when Munster come calling, how do you say no?"

He went on to make his debut in Munster's PRO14 opener at home to Cheetahs in Thomond Park, and he has never looked back since.

But after clocking up some massive mileage in his first campaign with his adopted province, there was a sense that Haley still hadn't blossomed fully under Van Graan.

It is often in a player's second season that we see the full extent of their talents and the belief in and around Thomond Park is that the full-back is coming of age.

Wallaby great Stephen Larkham joined up as backs coach ahead of the 2019-'20 season, and Munster have looked like a new team in attack.

But part and parcel of their brilliant resurgence has been Haley's outstanding performances from full-back.

"We just go through our processes," said Haley. "We know what we can do and we don't need to do anything extraordinary. We do what we do and the chances will come."

And the chances have come; Haley has dotted down on two occasions in seven appearances for Munster this season.

He has started every one of those games, and featured in every Munster fixture except for their away-day victory over Cardiff Blues on November 2.

Munster have scored 21 tries, the most in Conference B in the PRO14 this term, while they claimed a bonus point in their wonderful Champions Cup victory over Ospreys at Liberty Stadium. But Racing 92 were always going to be a step up in class after they demolished reigning champions Saracens a week previous.

Nevertheless, Haley had another rip-roaring outing. He was thrilling to watch and he stole the show last weekend with Zebo a little quieter than expected at the other end for the visitors.

Taste

It was another coming-of-age moment for a player in form, and having made his international debut for Ireland against Italy last August, he will surely have a role to play under new head coach Andy Farrell there too - another man from the Greater Manchester area.

"That's the first cap out of the way. I have a bit of a taste for it now, I want to get some more," he said.

But for now Munster is the sole focus of the dangerous, free-running attacker and he loves playing in front of their boisterous home support.

"The crowd is unbelievable," said Haley.

"You talk about Thomond and European nights and it was the epitome against Racing, it is something to behold when you are on the field, it really is."

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