Saturday 23 November 2019

'We won't be looking to take our foot off the pedal'

 

Mike Haley goes through his kicking routine at UL. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Mike Haley goes through his kicking routine at UL. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Big Interview: Mike Haley

Mike Haley was in the Munster defensive line, his body ached but this was mind over matter, he continued to help hold the Exeter Chiefs attack at bay as the clock ticked down towards 80.

His father, Tim, was in the stands as the tension built in a traditional European Cup belter at Thomond Park. It was the first time that Haley got to really experience the full ferocity of a night like this.

The place was hopping and for some it was too much. Haley's mother, Siobhán, should have been in the stands. Instead she spent the crucial moments with her ears covered away from the action. She was hiding in the toilets.

"It was a tough old game, wasn't it? Exeter came and really showed that they wanted to play some rugby. They showed why they are top of the Premiership," says the full-back.

"But it was great from our boys. They really dug deep. We didn't do much in attack but defensively we really did well. Thankfully, we got the job done."

Haley has already accumulated over 1,000 minutes on the field for Munster since his debut against Cheetahs in the PRO14 at Thomond Park.

British & Irish Lion Simon Zebo sent shockwaves through Irish Rugby when he announced that he would play his rugby in Paris this term.

The former Ireland international was a stalwart for Munster, and the province turned to Sale Sharks for the answer. "I had never really crossed paths with Simon Zebo and obviously, they are big boots to fill," says Haley.

"Zebo was fantastic for Munster but I can't fill them boots. I just have to do what I do and how I like to play the game. I have to bring my best onto the team and that's all I can do.

"If you move anywhere you would like to think you will be first choice. You never really know until you turn up what it's going to be like.

"It's fantastic to get this much game-time and I am really enjoying it. The more you play with the likes of Keith Earls, Andrew Conway, Joey Carbery, Conor Murray, all them boys, you really get an understanding about how they like to play the game.

"It's good to have this much game-time because I am learning off of them."

Teens

Haley grew up in Preston and attended Hartpury College before he was snapped up by Sale as he entered his teens.

Rugby was the main sport growing up. His father played for the local Preston Grasshoppers and youngster Mike became infatuated.

At Sale, he was a one-club player all the way through and after he graduated from the academy ranks he broke the 100-appearance marker with the senior Sharks team.

Just like Munster tighthead prop, Ciaran Parker, Haley actually made his European debut against Munster. His came when the sides met at the AJ Bell Stadium in October 2014.

His professional career has been spent dotted in various positions across the backline, but if he had been a little bigger Haley might have been wearing No 6 on his back instead.

"I got picked up by Sale when I was 13. Those were exciting times for me. And it was between when I was 14 and 15 that I had the belief I could actually go on and get signed and thankfully I did," Haley says.

"I was a blindside flanker at that stage. I was probably 15 or 16 when I changed to centre. I had played all across the backline. When I signed for Sale I didn't really have a position.

"When I was 17 it was like I could play centre or full-back or wing. They pushed me to play full-back and I went from there."

It's been an outstanding success ever since his move to the last man in line. Haley has played for the England Saxons and England XV but always maintained his Irish roots.

Things have come full circle now. Haley remembers visiting his grandmother, Vivien, in Kerry. He also distinctly remembers a Munster team that were winning all around them during his visits.

"It's unbelievable to have signed here. I have had a number of interviews now. People are happy seeing that I used to come down to Tralee quite a lot as a child," he says.

"You grow up in the age of when Munster were winning a lot of silverware and it's fantastic to be here."

But Haley doesn't want to bask in the glory of living in Limerick, playing rugby for Munster, or being the first choice full-back. Silverware is a huge aim. Munster haven't won a senior trophy since their PRO14 success way back in 2011. It's too long for a province with such a magnificent rugby heritage.

Two European Cup victories in 2006 and 2008 are too long ago as well. The Munster public are crying out for a chance to cheer their side on as they claim more silverware.

Munster's 26-17 win over Leinster during the festive period was a big statement. Players like Joey Carbery and Tadhg Beirne have given them an extra edge; Haley has certainly contributed too.

A real eye-catching aspect of his game is his talent running with ball in hand and his scything line-breaks have become a feature of Munster's play with him in the team. But he doesn't shirk his defensive responsibilities either, although with 15 carries and 56 metres gained he was the team's top ball-carrier against Exeter.

Accumulated

He has also ran in two tries in the 15 caps he has accumulated since his signing but he knows the coming weeks will be crucial as the fringe players need to step up with the internationals away on Six Nations duty.

Big responsibility will be placed on his shoulders, along with the other experienced players left behind. Haley cannot wait for the challenge in the short and long term.

"We have got a fantastic squad. It's great to have a number of players in the Irish squad," says Haley.

"But the fact that we have such a big team, we have probably got 45-odd players including the academy. They are all of a great standard. We won't be looking to take our foot off the pedal. We will be pushing hard in PRO14 and in our group.

"The boys were disappointed with how they finished up last year. We want to make sure that we do better than we did. We are in a good position. We are top of our conference and we are in the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup. That is a great place to be."

Irish Independent

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