Mike Haley typically represents Munster's most potent running threat in an attacking capacity. The 27-year-old fullback might balk at such an assessment, primarily on the grounds of modesty but as a statement it is difficult to refute based on his body of work.
Examples are legion, the latest evident in Munster's victory over Cardiff in the United Rugby Championship at Musgrave Park last weekend. Haley scored two tries, one a simple finish but the other illustrated his capacity to recognise opportunity in the helter-skelter of the match environment.
Retreating in their 22, the Cardiff players in their desperation to realign defensively were in a footrace to the touchline looking to plug gaps. Haley read the intent and on foot of a sharp sidestep cutting against the grain and smooth acceleration he negotiated a path to the try-line, untouched.
It made sense to me that if I wanted to play week in, week out, [fullback] seemed like one that suited my skill set
Game intelligence is as prized a virtue as any physical ability and Haley has consistently displayed this characteristic since he moved from Sale Sharks to Munster in 2018. His counterattacking nous, the ability to beat the first tackler and find open space has been a hallmark of quality attached to that side of the game. Haley invariably punishes loose kicking.
In analysing Munster performances, it is remarkable the number of times that he enjoys a pivotal involvement in try scoring, either as the point of origin or in being able to marry good decision-making with accuracy of execution.
Today at the Aviva stadium Toulouse will test his mettle as the reigning Heineken Champions Cup winners look to repeat their victory of last year over the Irish province. If Munster are to succeed, then there is a better than even chance that Haley will be prominent.
The player that he has become has been shaped by two environments, 10 years at Sale and then his time at Munster. Growing up in Preston, he spent alternate summers during his childhood in France and a cottage in Fenit, owned by his grandmother Vivienne, who hailed from Tralee.
He remembers Fenit with affection: the diving board, the cold water, the rain, and the 10-minutes of sunshine, before it rained again. He joined Sale at 13 and would spend a decade with the Manchester club apart from a two-year hiatus at Hartpury College, from 16-18, outside Gloucester. In his first year there he picked up a couple of big injuries and started "messing around."
It drew a rebuke from his father. Haley explained: “My old man was like ‘you can come back up here [to Preston] and I will give you a job and you go for it with Sale or you stay down there and buckle down. I said I was going to give it a go for a year and see where it gets me.” Academically it didn’t work out, he “flunked” but he did subsequently address that successfully at university in Northumbria.
He played as a flanker until he was 16, transitioned to centre in the year he was injured, then on returning to Sale assessed his options and plumped for fullback. He explained: "At the time Sam Tuitupou and Johnny Leota were at centre with [Ulster and Ireland's] Will Addison in the background too."
There was a more modest queue at fullback. Haley continued: “It made sense to me that if I wanted to play week in, week out, [fullback] seemed like one that suited my skill set, [one where I could] start to develop quickly and that there might be less competition; despite the fact that with fullback you are either in or out of the team.”
He pointed to the fact that the only trade-off was that fullbacks rarely made the bench as coaches preferred those who could fulfil several roles. Haley’s assertion is borne out by his time at Munster. Remarkably he has started all 76 appearances in a red jersey, playing the full 80-minutes on 62 occasions, during which time he has scored 14 tries, at one every 5.44 matches.
His journey from Sale to Munster was a two-part affair. The Irish province tried to recruit him as a 21-year-old before managing to agree a deal three years later. Haley believes that his decision to stay put initially was the correct one and by the time that he moved he had developed into a much better player.
His summers in Kerry ensured that there wasn’t much of a culture shock when he and his partner, Lucy – they now have two children, three-year-old Frankie and Ivy (10 months) – moved to Limerick but what surprised him most? “One of the biggest shocks for me in Munster was the work-rate of the lads. I had never been around such a hardworking group.
“You didn’t need to tell people to do things, they just did it. That was nice to be a part of because one of my traits that I like to think I’m good at, is work-rate. I will work all day. Seeing people do the exact same was fantastic.”
His easy-going nature meant that he settled quickly without compromising his personality. He used to arrive at training on a scooter; it inspired several teammates to make similar purchases.
He has loved every minute of his time at Munster. His contract is up next summer (2023) but all things being equal would like to extend that arrangement. He said: “This is out of my control. Do they want me? I have loved my time here, it has been fantastic, if they want to keep me on it would be unbelievable. That is a year off so there is still the end of the season to go and then conversations start happening.”
One person who facilitated his development as a player is Munster backs' coach Stephen Larkham – he returns to Australia at the end of the season – an outstanding outhalf and fullback in his day and a World Cup winner with the Wallabies. Haley said: "From a personal point of view he is great to have a chinwag with. He understands the pressures, the different situations that you can get yourself in at fullback.
“Sometimes it is hard to talk to other coaches who have not played there. They just haven’t experienced what might be going through your mind at certain points of the game. Whether you want to have a crack, whether you want to ping the ball back, what are you looking for, what you need to be reading throughout the game and what the forwards need; he understood everything because he had experienced it.
“What I also found is that he would be very receptive that there was an area of your game that you needed to work on. He would listen to you, listen to the group [and then] implement it at training.”
Externally, Munster’s back play has come in for some pretty strident criticism on occasion but Haley argues that it is longer on perception rather than reality. “A number of our poorer performances were just tight, physical games where neither team was giving an inch and, in those games, you have to choose your moment carefully.
“Obviously, some of them we don’t get right [but when] we have seen the opportunity we have gotten remarkably better at being able to take those opportunities and that’s shown definitely this year.
It's just been great fun to be able to get your hands on the ball and attack the line, something that I have been building with Stephen [Larkham]
“The perception is there, and it is constantly talked about, so it feeds its own fire. We have 100 per cent belief in what we are doing [and] understand what we are trying to do. We know how good we can be.”
Haley is often a catalyst with his counterattacking skills. But he pointed to the work of his teammates to get back and support him that allows him to select from a menu of options. “Your main attributes as a fullback are to be good under the high ball and good on counterattack.
“It is a part of the game that I absolutely love. It’s just been great fun to be able to get your hands on the ball and attack the line, something that I have been building with Stephen [Larkham] so that I am more beneficial to the team.” It works.
He continued: “The touches I want, I want them to be productive and I want them to be for the betterment of the team rather than just be touches for the sake of it. Yes, I’m definitely working hard to get into positions where I can get my hands on the ball and make something happen. That is something that you can always get better at.”
Haley won a single cap for Ireland in a warm-up game against Italy ahead of the 2019 World Cup. He has had a couple of conversations with current Irish backs' coach Mike Catt and the message is that they are keeping an eye on him, but Haley's attitude is pragmatic in that a place in the Ireland squad is determined by the opinion of others, so he doesn't sweat it. He gives primacy to Munster.
It is not that he is apathetic, he would love to be involved and on the basis that Munster’s player of the season to date is arguably a straight shoot out between Haley and Jack O’Donoghue, he should be a strong contender to tour with Ireland to New Zealand during the summer.
He can enhance those prospects with a high-calibre performance against Toulouse. “You must give them respect but not too much respect that you then go into your shell. If I am honest, I just cannot wait, you know it’s going to be a proper contest, almost a Test match [in intensity] against quality players.
“As a fullback, if you look at the game [Munster lost to Toulouse] last year, I got through quite a lot of work. Their attack offers a lot of variety in what they are trying to do, whether that’s kicking, offloads or holding the ball and then they have players that can produce magic moments.
“You have to expect everything and if you are not then you are not prepared.” Haley is unlikely to fall into that category. His hope, and that of Munster and their supporters is that it is the fullback’s attacking brio that captures the headlines come Saturday evening. That would bode well.