It’s been a long road but Tyler Bleyendaal is finally proving his worth

Munster kicker came with much hype but not until fateful day against Glasgow did he shine

Tyler Bleyendaal of Munster kicks a penalty during the European Champions Cup match between Munster and Leicester Tigers at Thomond Park last week. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

Tyler Bleyendaal of Munster kicks a penalty during the European Champions Cup match between Munster and Leicester Tigers at Thomond Park last week. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

 

“It’s not a piece of meat we are dealing with,” said Anthony Foley in September 2014 when quizzed about a badly injured Tyler Bleyendaal.

Munster had stalled overnight in a Dublin airport hotel before a Pro12 game in Italy when Foley, only a few weeks into the head coaching job, was faced with the reality of Rob Penney’s most valuable parting gift needing a season to rehab neck surgery despite signing a three-year contract to switch from Christchurch to Limerick.

Penney wanted to bring Bleyendaal with him in 2012 but a quad tear in the ITM Cup final, Penney’s last match in charge of Canterbury, scuppered the joint move.

So Munster were fully aware of this long, wiry outhalf since he captained New Zealand to the 2010 Junior World Cup. Nominated for Under-20 player of the year (Julian Savea took that award) but a clear line of succession from Christchurch Boys’ High into the Crusaders and All Black 10 jersey – Andrew Mehrtens (1995-2004), who he is shaped like, to Dan Carter (2003-15), who he glides above the grass like, and on to Bleyendaal – seemed unbreakable.

Inevitable even.

But New Zealand, as they proved once again last month, remain a ruthless and unforgiving rugby nation. One bad game can suck the life out of any career. Because there is always another player.

The New Zealand Herald in March 2012, under the headline “Carter’s young rivals lining up at first five,” laid out the next generation: “During the [2011] World Cup, 23-year-old Aaron Cruden slipped into the number ten jersey after injuries ruled out Carter and then Colin Slade. And when he suffered the same fate, an SOS call found Stephen Donald holding a whitebaiting net and considering whether to open another beer.

“After Donald there was no one obvious left, but already this season Beauden Barrett and Tyler Bleyendaal have shown they have the potential to make an impact at the next level.”

Bleyendaal was firmly part of the great and daily Kiwi conversation about who will take the crown when the king finally abdicates.

“Barrett, the 20-year-old from Taranaki who turned down an offer from the Blues to stay with the Hurricanes this season, has been a revelation in South Africa where he was involved in almost everything good in their loss against the Stormers and kicked his side to a late victory over the Lions.

“Bleyendaal, 21, made his Super Rugby debut against the Blues in round one of this season’s Super Rugby competition and looked like he belonged straight away in terms of confidence. His ability to take on the defensive line and his strength in the tackle made him look like an old pro.”

Bleyendaal was the early favourite to become the chosen one. Barrett’s pace, along with the presence of Gareth Anscombe, saw him wear 15 for the Baby Blacks in 2011.

Within a year Cruden was out in front of them all with Barrett an increasingly compelling alternative while Anscombe eventually became Welsh as Lima Sopoaga nudged alongside Bleyendaal.

Then, without much warning, Tom Taylor was switched to 10 by Crusaders coach Todd Balckadder. When everyone else was injured Taylor even made a rapid leap into the All Blacks as pivot against Australia.

Colin Slade also returned and, despite Carter being granted a six month healing period, the rise of Ryan Crotty put further strain in Canterbury’s first and second-five-eight department.

Bleyendaal responded with a commanding regular season performance against the Stormers in Cape Town and was starting at outhalf – again in Carter’s absence – as the 2014 campaign got under way against the champion Chiefs.

A mountain of work was done by All Black forwards Richie McCaw, Owen Franks and Sam Whitelock to put their place kicker in a position to win this tight New Zealand derby.

Bleyendaal missed his first two penalties, one pulling off to the left, the other failing to fade in from the right. As his third penalty, 48 metres out but central, stayed right, commentator Grant Nisbett noted, “So it is becoming an issue.”

Penalty number four arrived soon after. Again, central on the 10 metre line.

“This is the easiest attempt Bleyendaal has had tonight. It looks like it is going to be very tight and there is a player on the bench, his name is Tom Taylor, so while Bleyendaal is playing well it looks like he has got to convert these.”

He stole a few metres to sneak into range.

“Tyler, Tyler, Tyler!” the referee demanded, “It’s back here.”

Crowd murmurings, distant cow bells, big screen shows Cruden’s face then Taylor on the Crusaders bench.

Left of centre, one of those moments when your professional career flashes before your eyes and then fades to black, not All Black, just black.

He hooked it.

“Well well,” said Nisbett. “Will be very interesting to see what happens at half time, four misses.”

A fifth and last chance presented itself as the clock struck 40.

Again, near half way and probably out of range, he shanked it horribly.

“The kick goes sailing away, way, way to the left and it completes a miserable...”

Taylor took over but the damage was already done and the Crusaders lost 18-10.

Bleyendaal disappeared from Super Rugby as Munster got their man, but while rehabilitating his career for Canterbury in the ITM Cup a prolapsed disc required neck surgery and a statuesque year.

Foley and Munster stayed loyal as Ian Keatley became their starting 10 and a frustrated JJ Hanrahan joined Northampton. Keatley was eventually squeezed out by Johnny Holland while Bill Johnston showed the sort of potential playing for Ireland under-20s at last summer’s World Cup that Bleyendaal had done six years previously.

In April 2015 Bleyendaal finally made his debut for Munster A against Ulster in the halfway house of Naas, meagre beginnings for a player previously on course to replacing the greatest ever.

“Immediately he started talking in meetings and you realised he had a rugby brain on him,” said Conor Murray. “He’s been understudy to Dan Carter for a couple of years and there’s no better person in world rugby to learn your trade off.”

It proved a false dawn.

Come January 2016 Munster released a statement saying they did not really know how to heal Bleyendaal’s recurring quad issue.

Three more months, wondering, as their season nose dived. It got worse when Holland was forced to retire at just 25.

So it came back around to Bleyendaal, now 26.

That seminal Glasgow Warriors game in October, the Champions Cup day when Thomond Park swelled again, a hero was needed. Bleyendaal had showed glimpses of genuine quality in defeat to Leinster but his leadership was under scrutiny.

Not three minutes has passed when Keith Earls breaks and offloads to the supporting scrum-capped 10. Three Glasgow men close in but a step, glide and twist delivers a try as Bleyendaal lands on his head and neck. He gets up to plant the touchline conversion.

Not since Ronan O’Gara has Thomond Park seen this level of pressured delivery off the kicking tee. Also, look at him just out of shot in that game, constantly directing bodies into a finely tuned attacking shape.

On he went, but not before the man of the match award was hand delivered to Killaloe.

He qualifies for Ireland in January 2018. So does Tom McCartney, following Bundee Aki and Louis Ludik among others, with Jamison Gibson Park and Jean Kleyn in 2019. That’s if the three-year residency rule still exists.

The Leicester win last weekend showed just how much Bleyendaal has progressed since that nightmare against the Chiefs in February 2014.

The similarities are uncanny. Another five first-half kicks at goal.

The dominant Munster pack needed to be rewarded with points as Leicester forwards spoiled everything to deny early tries.

****

10 minutes: Tyler penalty, right of centre, same stance, same approach, same banana swerve, albeit slightly less pronounced.

3-0.

“That’s an important kick,” says David Wallace on television.

12 minutes: “He’s playing the percentage game” as the ball bounces into touch in the Leicester 22. The Rog game.

“Just having a 10 there that can manage a game,” Wallace continues, “It’s just a godsend.”

He who knows better than anyone.

15 minutes: Ironically, again, a true strike from the same spot he missed against the Chiefs makes it 6-0.

18 minutes: All Bleyendaal now, unleashing the pre-match directive of targeting Leicester wingers or more accurately showcasing the aerial ability of Darren Sweetnam. Ball breaks kindly for Ben Youngs who feeds Owen Williams who punts 60 metres down field. Bleyendaal is waiting. He lets it roll into the Munster 22 before finding touch on halfway.

23 minutes: This must be some weird glitch in the matrix; another kick in an almost identical position to where the shank against the Chiefs. Except right of centre, 50 odd metres out. Over the black spot it sails.

Munster 9-0 Leicester.

Nesbo would be purring.

27 minutes: Same situation but different result as his fourth penalty swerves right to left and fades between the posts.

Munster 12-0 Leicester.

33 minutes: A fifth penalty in the opening 40 minutes flies across the uprights but four from five beats the emptiness, and with victory comes a form of redemption.

****

Hanrahan is reportedly coming home next summer while the future can be all Johnston’s if he manages to stay injury free, so without much warning Munster possess depth in a position where they seemed lost since O’Gara retired.

There were deep concerns until October that Bleyendaal was more like his Fight Club namesake, Durden, and simply a figment of our far flung imagination.

How wrong we were. But it still needed proving. For the wondrous snippets of talent at age grade, he struggled in the congested shark thank of Canterbury five-eights.

Sopoaga sped past as Barrett and Cruden disappeared into the blackness.

Then his neck prolapsed.

Then, on that evening out by the airport and many times thereafter, Axel backed Tyler.

“It’s a human being, so there is a human side to this that we need to manage, and that is what Munster is about, it’s about the people,” said Foley. “If a player has committed to us in terms of contract we need to make sure we are looking after this player as well.”

By the people Anthony Foley always meant himself.

There will be an epilogue to this story next month when Bleyendaal faces Carter, O’Gara and Racing 92.

The Crusaders have new outhalves come 2017 – Tim Bateman, Marty McKenzie and Richie Mo’unga – because in Canterbury there is always another player.

In Munster there is only the player. That is part of the legacy too.

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