If Tyler Bleyendaal needed any extra motivation to hit the ground running in the upcoming Guinness PRO14 campaign, an invitation to Ireland’s pre-season training camp last week did just nicely.
Yet the New Zealand-born fly-half, whose necessary three years’ Irish residency is complete at the end of January, is acutely aware that he will only earn a Test debut in green if he kicks on this season in Munster red.
The prospect of international rugby as early as next February, for the 2018 Six Nations, is enticing the former New Zealand U20 captain, but with only one full season under his belt for Munster after his first two years were disrupted by injuries, the 27-year-old knows he still has much to prove. And an early taste of life under Ireland boss Joe Schmidt underlined that point perfectly.
Christchurch native Bleyendaal and Connacht’s Auckland-born centre Bundee Aki, who becomes eligible for Ireland ahead of November’s autumn Tests, were the fresh faces at Carton House on Monday as Schmidt gathered his squad for an overnight camp.
The Munster playmaker’s experience has whetted his appetite for further involvement. “It was great to be invited and spend the two days there,” said Bleyendaal.
“I learned about how the environment runs. The first time I talked to [Schmidt] was on the phone, calling me to camp, so it was great to learn and see and experience how he does things. Just being around the top guys in the country is a great experience and you can see where you really need to get to. It gives that drive to get to the next level.”
Reminded that his Irish eligibility kicks in just ahead of the Six Nations campaign, Bleyendaal smiled and said “Apparently so,” before adding: “It’s an opportunity but I think it starts with Munster and how we perform. Leading the team here and trying to be as successful as we can, that’s committed a lot of guys to making that next step into the Irish camp.”
Bleyendaal looks set to start Friday’s season opener at home to Treviso, rebranded over the summer as Benetton Rugby, when the Italians visit Musgrave Park, and the fly-half is relishing the chance to build on his first full pre-season since joining from Canterbury in January 2015.
His arrival in Ireland had been delayed by neck surgery and he did not make his Munster debut until the following September, also in Cork against Treviso. Yet a recurring problem with a quad muscle limited him to just five appearances in 2015-16 and last season was his first real shot at making an impression.
That he did, Bleyendaal steering Munster to the Champions Cup semi-finals and into the PRO12 final, picking up four man-of-the-match awards in the process, captaining the side five times before collecting his province’s Player of the Year honours and landing the fly-half berth on the Guinness Dream Team. This time around, though, he feels he is getting his first proper run at a new campaign.
“This time last year I was still rehabbing that quad from the season before. So I had a great season, playing time-wise, got a lot done, and I’ve got a good six-, seven-week pre-season on top of that as well. I’m feeling good and I think the whole squad’s feeling good to get cracking. Pre-season was great and it’s exciting now to get stuck into the new season and put all that hard work and the not so glamorous stuff into practice.”
Bleyendaal marked his summer back in Christchurch by getting married but returned for pre-season training to the news that director of rugby Rassie Erasmus and defence coach Jaques Nienaber had given notice to quit just 12 months into their three-year contracts.
The fly-half says their decision has not impacted on pre-season preparations. “It seems to be pretty seamless at the minute,” he said. “There’s been no issues, frankly. It’s been nice because last year we had a whole new regime, putting things into place. This year we can be a bit more focused and I think we’ve got on with our work pretty well. The squad’s looking good, we’ve got some great depth, and some young guys coming through and I’m looking forward to getting started.”
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