Mike Haley spent over a decade at Sale and played over a hundred games for the Sharks. From the age of 13 to 23, they were the only club he'd ever known. Yet when Munster came calling a year ago, he made his decision within a couple of weeks.
His paternal grandmother hails from Tralee and he had enjoyed family holidays as a kid in Fenit. Hence he had spoken to Munster before, but he was only 21 then and reckoned staying with Sale was the right option.
No regrets first time round, and none second time either. Haley believes this was perfect timing.
"I'm still young. I'm 24. I've got lots to learn. There's experience everywhere here. It's great to learn off the likes of Joey [Carbery], Keith Earls, Andrew Conway, and then obviously you have Johann [van Graan] and Felix [Jones] who has a great knowledge as well. I'm just feeding off that."
Leaving Sale, and all the memories and friendships he’d generated there, was not the big wrench it might have seemed.
“Nothing is ever easy but I think for a lot of people if Munster search you out how are you going to say no? And the fact that I had spoken to them previously and then they came back again showed that they wanted me here. I’m absolutely delighted that it happened because I couldn’t be happier at the moment.”
Haley arrived in July and initially lived with two team-mates, Ciaran Parker and Sammy Arnold, but has since found his own place. Now, not long after his career-changing move, Mike and and his partner Lucy are about to experience the life-changing arrival of their first child.
“Yeah, our baby’s due on the 8th of Feb,” says Haley. “We’re very excited. It’s our first one. Yeah, a Limerick baby!”
Not long after arriving in Munster, Haley discovered that like every other player he’d need a thick skin. Hence, he feared the consequences of riding into the High Performance Centre in the UL one day on a motorised scooter.
“I was a bit uncertain of how it would be received but the boys loved it. They were all asking for a go and then before I knew it, about four or five had bought one.
"Keith Earls, Conor Murray, Ronan O'Mahony and Jack O'Donoghue all got one, and then Joey Carbery got his own version but I think he might have upgraded it."
At the time it would take him three minutes to get into work.
“Because you are on a scooter you can cut through little alleyways and everything, but the tyre is actually punctured at the moment. I rode over a nail but because it’s been winter I haven’t really been too keen to get it fixed because it can get quite cold, so now I’m just driving. I’ve got my car over now.”
Being an expectant father he’ll also have a baby seat. His scooter days have been parked.
So life is good, and if a mate in England was to ask him what his new life in Munster is like?
“I’d say first thing is real good craic. The boys are great fun to be around; it’s fun being in this building,” he says of High Performance Centre in the UL. “Secondly, it’s very professional. We’re here for a reason and that is to win things. That’s what most people would want to do in their career, but I’d say that Munster are doing it to the very best they can do. We’re making sure that every day we are all striving be the best we can be. You might hear that every now and then, but it really does mean something here.”
Born and bred in Preston, his paternal grand-dad was a doctor in the army and so his family moved around England.
“He married my Grandma, Vivienne, who was from Tralee,” says Haley. His dad, Tim, an accountant and his mum, Siobhan, from Glasgow, reared their family of six in Preston. Haley is the youngest sibling to four sisters, Viv, Laura, Evelyn and Miranda, and one brother, Pete. His dad has been over to see him play and both his parents will be at Thomond Park today; his mum for the first time.
Family holidays were taken in Kerry “every other year”, he recalls. “When I was growing up we’d either go to France or to Tralee because my grandma had a cottage down in Fenit. We’d go down there and go outside on the diving boards and do whatever kids do. It was good fun.”
By the time he was 13 he was already in the Sale set-up. He signed his first contract at 17, made his debut at 18 and was a regular by 20.
“I played with some absolutely fantastic players, and had some great coaches, and I’ve picked up bits from every person I’ve met and tried to bring it into the way I play. That’s the same since I’ve come to Munster. So yeah, I had great, great years at Sale.”
Naturally enough, Haley’s initial international ambitions were to play for England. He came close too, impressing in the England Saxons’ two wins over a South African selection on a tour there in the summer of 2016, and against the Barbarians at Twickenham in May 2017. Outside of those games, Haley maintains, he never really thought much about Test ambitions.
“I really mean it, I really do mean it, most of my attention goes on playing for my club because there’s nothing else you can do outside your club,” he says. “You could have all the dreams in the world but if you’re not doing what you need to do on a Saturday then that’s not going to be a reality. I’m quite short-focused minded, if you know what I mean.”
There was, he admits, one chat with Joe Schmidt, but many more with van Graan and Jones. "I wasn't coming over here to play for Ireland. I wanted to come here and play for one of the greatest clubs in Europe and that's Munster."
There have been glimpses of Haley’s elusive running with the ball and ability to step off both feet, not least when striking from deep. That ability to identify space has also taken some pressure off the Munster halves. He has performed well in big games, and can hit hard in defence. But while he’s added to his game, he is the first to admit there’s “more to come”, perhaps mostly in his work in collisions and in the air.
Haley has been part of some Irish training camps, but by contrast his one-time Sale team-mate Will Addison relocated to Ulster and having won three Irish caps, was included in the 38-man Ireland squad this week.
An engaging and easy-going lad, Haley is not in the least envious.
“I’m very good friends with Will and we both came through Sale. If anything I’m delighted for him because I saw him have a number of very tough injuries.
“I’d be texting him the whole way through saying, ‘mate you played awesome at the weekend’. He looks like he’s having fun and if your mate is going well it’s nice to see. There’s no animosity.”
Nor is he remotely surprised.
“I think the fantastic thing with Will is he can play anywhere. He’s a footballer isn’t he? The way he kicks the ball, runs, passes, it’s just very natural for him.”
Haley is encountering familiar opposition again this week, and while buoyed by the performance against Gloucester, is fully cognisant of what awaits Munster at Thomond Park today.
“This is the type of game that I probably came here for, a top side that I’m involved with against a top side, and it’s probably as close as you’ll get to Test match rugby.”