Having been through the wringer as often as he has in his rugby career, Tyler Bleyendaal has learned to make the most of his on-field opportunities when they arise and this weekend will be no exception.
At the age of 29, serious injuries have left the Munster fly-half well short of the appearances his age and talents suggest should be the case.
The Christchurch-born playmaker credits an innate stubbornness for helping him find the resolve to overcome neck problems that have made his career a frustratingly stop-start affair, and despite having just 61 appearances for the province in five seasons on his record, Bleyendaal’s maturity has enabled him to transition smoothly into a senior figure at Munster.
Now he has a chance to showcase the talents that persuaded Munster to keep faith with a player who arrived from the Crusaders in January 2015 needing to rehabilitate his first serious neck injury, ironically because his two rivals for the number 10 jersey — Joey Carbery and JJ Hanrahan — are themselves now sidelined.
“From the start, before I even got here, they showed such loyalty to somebody they hadn’t even met in person, so I’m forever grateful for that. Injuries are part of the game I guess, everyone goes through them.
Carbery is likely to miss at least the first two rounds of the Heineken Champions Cup this month, starting this Saturday at Ospreys, due to the ankle injury he returned home with from Ireland’s World Cup campaign, while Hanrahan pulled up lame with a hamstring issue in last Saturday’s PRO14 win over Ulster and is now a serious doubt for the trip to Swansea this weekend.
So Bleyendaal, having closed that home win over Ulster, sits in pole position to resume a European career that has seen him experience semi-final defeats to Saracens as the starting 10 in both 2017 and last season.
That he was on the field either time is a testament to his determination to overcome those neck injuries.
“I must be extremely stubborn or something, to be honest, because, I don’t know, if you give it too much thought, you kinda do wonder,” Bleyendaal said this week.
“I love the game and I guess I’m very privileged to be able to play and I really enjoy my time with Munster.
“Just having the opportunity to be able to play, I guess, and that drive to keep improving as a player and for us to succeed as a team is just something I want to be a part of and I guess I was lucky as well that the injuries didn’t force me out of the game.
Having fought his way back from the first injury — a disc lesion on duty for Canterbury in the ITM Cup back in 2014 —Bleyendaal was struck down a second time while playing for Munster at Castres in October 2017, and would have been forgiven for thinking about simply walking away from the sport.
“I guess you do (have those thoughts), but then my first choice is always to keep playing, you never once thought: ‘I’m going to give this up, it’s too hard’,” he says.
“It was just, medical staff ‘is it possible? — yes, it’s possible’ and ‘right, let’s get stuck into the rehab’.
“It’s all gone well so far, so I was delighted with that and I was never really a point where I was going to throw it in. I think again maybe I’m a little bit stubborn, but I just really enjoy it.
“There’s always ‘what ifs’, yeah. We’ve given ourselves the best chance over the last few years to get involved and get to a final and win some silverware.
“I think if you take a bit of personal stuff out of it, you want to be part of a successful team sometimes. It’s not always about yourself and what you do, so I’d love to be a part of a squad that wins silverware and I want to do it here at Munster — so that’s why I say every day I turn up, whether I am playing or not, I give it everything.
“I think you get to a point there where you just put the team first. You have to put your own personal ambitions aside, especially when it comes to selection sometimes.
“When Joey came, he was playing unbelievably, sometimes I was on the bench, sometimes I wasn’t in the squad at all — it’s just about giving everything you have for Munster to be successful and if that’s helping out those guys with the detail or the training or maybe training as the opposition, there’s always something you can do. I’ve found myself on all sides of that.”
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