Much like Munster’s frustrations in Europe these past three seasons, Mike Haley is hoping his best is yet to come.
While the province has come up short in successive European semi-finals and needs to shatter its Heineken Champions Cup glass ceiling, the full-back is intent on upping his game for the same cause in his second season at the club since joining from Sale Sharks in the summer of 2018.
Haley, 25, will do so having earned Test recognition with Ireland during the summer and having suffered the disappointment of being cut from Joe Schmidt’s World Cup plans shortly after his debut against Italy in August.
Yet he has returned to Munster feeling a better player for his extended time in the Irish set-up and the experience can benefit his province this season.
“It was a great experience, and something that I enjoyed doing... it was nice to be in there for I think it was about six or eight weeks, and then be able to get on the field against Italy,” Haley said this week as Munster prepared to go to Ospreys for Saturday’s European pool opener.
“The Six Nations is a long time away.
“It is a clean slate (under new head coach Andy Farrell) but at the moment it is all almost a clean slate at Munster as well. We had a number of new coaches coming in this year and I just wanted to make sure that... I want to perform for Munster, that’s the team I signed for and I want to make sure I’m playing as well as I can do week in, week out, and I’ve been really enjoying my rugby this season.
“I really enjoyed my first season at Munster but I think it probably took me a little bit longer to actually settle down. Whether that was for a few personal reasons or whatever was going on in the background, just to get myself comfortable.
“A year on, I’m absolutely loving life here. My family is all settled, I’ve got my little boy now here, who is a Limerick lad, and I feel like I’m starting to play some good rugby and that was the aim I wanted initially.
“It probably took me a little bit longer than I thought to get to this stage.
“What I want to do is make sure I’m consistently playing well for Munster. We want to be competing at the highest level on both fronts, that’s Europe and the PRO14, and Europe starts with Ospreys away on Saturday.”
The arrival of Stephen Larkham as senior coach this summer has allowed Haley, he believes, to play more akin to the way he did at Sale and replicate the form that attracted him to Munster in the first place, offering a playmaking option from full-back as a first or second receiver. The difference from his first season at Munster is, he said, “100 per cent”.
“I think if you looked at how I played when I played with Sale, that was something I was doing quite a lot.
“I think I actually lost that a little bit last season for whatever reason.
“But I’ve kind of set myself my own challenges this year, and one of them is to be more hungry, look for the ball, make sure I’m getting my hands on the ball, because I want to make sure I’m doing the right things and the first thing is putting the team first, then if I slot into what I need to do in that, that’s perfect.
“But yeah, the way we are playing rugby at the moment, it’s great fun to be a part of.”
Haley feels Munster supporters have yet to see the best of him.
“No, not by a long way. I think the great thing is that Munster attract some of the best coaches in the world, and they’ve shown that with Stephen Larkham and Graham Rowntree coming in, and at the moment I’m just feeding off that.
“Stephen Larkham was a fantastic player, achieved a lot, played full-back as well, so I ask a number of questions of him just to see what he was thinking, what his thoughts were, kind of quiz him a little bit and just try to learn as much as I can off somebody like that.
“The more I learn, I can kind of pick what I want out of what he’s saying, as well as adding to the team and then adding bits to my game.
“You’re turning up at Munster, and Munster when you’re growing up is ‘the team’, it’s one of the biggest teams in Europe and the world, and I probably did put myself under a little bit of pressure for whatever reason. I feel like now, or probably actually post Christmas last season, I actually settled down way more, was enjoying my rugby, was getting into the flow of things, and that has carried on this season. It’s been great fun playing this year.”