The former New Zealand U20 captain and fly-half, signed from Canterbury in 2014 but did not arrive in Ireland until January 2015 following a serious neck injury and had to wait until the following September to make his Munster debut. A thigh injury then intervened and restricted Bleyendaal to just five appearances last season but after finally finding full fitness, the out-half has been an influential playmaker for the Reds this season.
Nominated by his fellow players alongside hooker Niall Scannell and tighthead prop John Ryan, Bleyendaal got the nod after the votes of supporters were taken into consideration and yesterday at the Maryborough House hotel in Cork the 26-year-old spoke of his belief that all would be well in the end.
“Injuries are a part of the game and a lot can be made out of them but with the guys around, the support staff and team-mates were extremely welcoming and it wasn’t too difficult (settling in),” Bleyendaal said.
“I knew there was going to come a time when I’d be healthy enough to play and in the meantime I drank a few Guinness and made a few friends and I’m pretty grateful for that. It’s great that it’s all working out now and as a team we’re doing really well.” Bleyendaal has made 23 starts this season plus one appearance off the bench as Munster have reached the semi-finals of both the Champions Cup and Guinness Pro12, the Kiwi set for further possible honours as he leads the Pro12 Golden Boot competition heading into this weekend’s final round of regular season games.
“If you look from this day last year (when Munster went into the final round needing a win just to qualify for Europe) to how we’ve developed and progressed, I think we can develop something special,” Bleyendaal said. “That’s our aim, that’s our goal.
“We didn’t set ourselves too many expectations this season, just got out there and had a crack and played to our potential, whatever that may be. As it was, it was a semi-final in Europe and now it’s a semi-final in the Pro12 and an opportunity to maybe win the Pro12. So we’ll just go on from there.” Wing Darren Sweetnam picked up the Young Player of the Year award at the awards lunch with back rower Conor Oliver collecting the John McCarthy Award for Greencore Munster Academy Player of the Year.
Tralee’s Siobhan Fleming, the Munster captain and Ireland back rower was honoured with her fourth Munster Women’s Player of the year award while former Grand Slam-winning team-mate Joy Neville capped a landmark season as Munster’s Referee of the Year.
PBC Cork were named School of the Year, while three of the four club awards went to Tipperary with Fethard and District RFC winning the Mini Section award, Nenagh Ormond collecting the Youth Section honour and Clonmel RFC named Junior Club of the Year.
Cork Constitution marked a week which started with their fifth Bateman Cup success in a row and will end with the Ulster Bank League final against Clontarf in Dublin on Sunday with Munster’s Senior Club of the Year award. And there was further celebration as former PBC, Con, Munster and Ireland fly-half Barry McGann was inducted into the province’s Hall of Fame, 50 years after winning his first provincial cap. McGann also played League of Ireland football with Shelbourne and was an Ireland U18 cap but it was as a rugby player where he found fame, playing 25 times for Ireland, his presence at fly-half persuading the great Mike Gibson to switch to midfield.
Meanwhile, two former Munster players have called time on their stays at Sale Sharks with Peter Stringer, 39, and Sam Tuitupou, 35, among 14 players leaving the English Premiership side at the end of the season.
Centre Tuitupou is joining Coventry in his first coaching role but there is no indication as yet of Stringer’s plans for the future.