Involvement in a major “derby” game on St Stephen’s Day used to be a novelty for Munster’s New Zealand out-half Tyler Bleyendaal. It’s high summer and off-season back home where he would normally be enjoying the beach and sunshine.
Here in Ireland, however, he will be the pivotal figure for Munster against Leinster for a PRO12 encounter before a sellout Thomond Park crowd on Monday.
“There is no hiding the significance of this match and we’re excited by it,” says the 26-year-old Kiwi, whose appearances over the last two years have been seriously restricted by injury. “We’re just so excited to get out there and play on Stephen’s Day. It will be a massive occasion and top of the table so it should be a great match.”
Having to play the game within 24 hours of consuming his Christmas dinner doesn’t seem to bother Bleyendaal.
“One of the skills you learn over a rugby career is how to switch on and switch off and that happens during the week and even during the day. In New Zealand, we’d have been on a two- or three-week break ahead of pre-season.
“This time of year, the barbeques are out and it’s much more of an outdoor affair but it’s nice to have different experiences. Christmas is a special time of year and it’s about trying to enjoy the day and the people around you and the occasion — and then somehow switch on the next day or that evening and know that there is a big game and a big performance to be had. It’s part of our job and we just have to turn up.”
This is yet another huge fixture for Munster and Bleyendaal is well aware of the significance. “It is special. You draw the calendar out [at the beginning of the season] and everyone looks at the Leinster matches home and away and we’re lucky to have the home one on Stephen’s Day and in front of 26,000 people. It will be amazing. We are looking forward to getting out there. We got past last weekend’s defeat [to Leicester] and got stuck into training and the challenge that Leinster will pose.”
He says the defeat at Welford Road does rankle: “We didn’t perform so we didn’t deserve to win almost and we had a chance to snatch it and then it was, ‘oh no’. They deserved to win with a great kick at the end.
“We just didn’t turn up to the extent that we had to, physically, and from 1 to 23 we are going to need an improvement. We are in the middle of a big block of matches that started with the two against Leicester and then obviously Leinster and Connacht and Europe after that. It is a hectic one but it’s an exciting one because it defines how you are going to be at the end of the season and what you’re playing for. It’s a busy schedule but one we do look forward to. As a team, we are performing well and, I must admit, I am enjoying being out there as I’ve spent plenty of time on the sideline.”
Bleyendaal found it difficult to compare the Munster-Leinster rivalry with similar occasions back home: “It’s hard to put a finger on it. Maybe back in the day, Canterbury v Auckland, but with Super Rugby now it’s five-team rivalry. It sounds bizarre but there is so much competition and there is no one standout team. It’s just an even, tough affair and when you’ve got to play those teams twice, like you do in Super Rugby, it’s tough.”
Bleyendaal is relishing the prospect of renewing his midfield partnership with fellow Kiwi Francis Saili. “He’s been back on the training pitch for the last week and he’s looking sharp. He’s like a speed above everyone and maybe needs to slow down a bit. It’s exciting. He’s had a long lay-off which is frustrating and which I can relate to. I just hope he gets a crack.”
Tyler’s final word on where this Munster team currently stands: “That’s the one thing after a disappointing loss, we still have to be realistic about where we sit in the scheme of things. We really have a great opportunity to put our case forward for the European competition. I guess, before then, we have to deal with Leinster and Connacht, which are two massive inter-Irish games.”
Rival coaches Rassie Erasmus of Munster and Leinster’s Leo Cullen have adopted contrasting strategies when naming their teams for Monday’s top of the table Guinness PRO12 encounter at a sold-out Thomond Park.
Erasmus has restricted the number of changes to three from the side that lost to Leicester Tigers last week. Keith Earls is the only member of Munster’s international contingent to be rested. He is replaced on the left wing by Ronan O’Mahony while the alterations up front see James Cronin back at loose head prop and Jean Kleyn in the second-row. They come in for David Kilcoyne and Billy Holland who appear in the replacements along with New Zealander Francis Saili who looks set to come on for his first game of the season having recovered from injury.
Cullen, on the other hand, has made ten changes from the line-up that routed Northampton last week, its own indication of the massive strength in depth he has at his disposal.
Tight head prop Tadhg Furlong is the only member of last week’s pack to be retained although he is part of an all-international front-row completed by Cian Healy, representing the province for the 164th time, and James Tracy.
Remarkably, Cullen has felt free to allow Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Josh Van der Flier, Gary Ringrose, Jack McGrath and Devin Toner to enjoy Christmas from the comfort of home!
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