Mike Haley’s powerful offense shaped by different cultures

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Mike Haley is usually Munster’s strongest running threat in an attacking capacity. The 27-year-old full-back might balk at such an assessment, mostly on modesty grounds, but as a statement it’s hard to refute based on his work.

Examples abound, the latest being Munster’s victory over Cardiff in the United Rugby Championship at Musgrave Park last weekend. Haley scored two tries, one a straightforward finish but the other exemplified his ability to recognize opportunities in the messy match environment.

Falling back in their 22, the Cardiff players in their desperation to realign themselves defensively were in a rush to the touchline looking to close the gaps. Haley read the intent and on foot with a sharp sidestep against the grain and smooth acceleration, he negotiated a path to the try line, undamaged.

It made sense to me that if I wanted to play week after week, [fullback] seemed to be the one that matched my skills

Game intelligence is as prized a virtue as any physical ability and Haley has consistently displayed this trait since moving from Sale Sharks to Munster in 2018. He is attached to this side of the game. Haley invariably punishes blows loose feet.

Analyzing Munster’s performance, it’s remarkable how many times he enjoys critical involvement in scoring tries, either as an originator or being able to marry good decision-making with the precision of execution.

Today at the Aviva Stadium, Toulouse will test their mettle as the reigning Champions Cup winners look to repeat their win over the Irish province last year. If Munster is to succeed, then there’s more than even a chance that Haley will be prominent.

The player he has become has been shaped by two backgrounds, 10 years in Salé then his time at Munster. Growing up in Preston, he spent alternating childhood summers in France and a cottage in Fenit, owned by his grandmother Vivienne, who was originally from Tralee.

He fondly remembers Fenit: the diving board, the cold water, the rain and the 10 minutes of sunshine, before it rained again. He joined Sale aged 13 and will spend a decade with the Manchester club apart from a two-year break at Hartpury College, aged 16-18, away from Gloucester. During his first year there, he suffered a few big injuries and started “messing around”.

He drew a reprimand from his father. Haley explained, “My old man was like ‘you can come back here [to Preston] and I’ll give you a job and you go get it with Dirty or you stay over there and buckle up. I said I was going to try for a year and see where it would take me. Academically it didn’t work out, he ‘failed’ but then he worked it out at Northumbria University.

He played as a flanker until he was 16, moved to center the year he was injured, then on his return to Sale he weighed his options and opted for full-back. He explained, “At the time, Sam Tuitupou and Johnny Leota were at the center with [Ulster and Ireland’s] Will Addison in the background too.

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There was a smaller queue at the back. Haley continued: “It made sense to me that if I wanted to play week after week, [fullback] seemed to be the one that matched my skills, [one where I could] start growing quickly and there might be less competition; despite the fact that with the back you are either in the team or out of the team.

He pointed to the fact that the only compromise was that full-backs rarely benched as coaches preferred those who could fill multiple roles. Haley’s assertion is backed up by her time in Munster. Remarkably, he started all 76 appearances in a red shirt, playing the full 80 minutes 62 times, in which he scored 14 tries, to one every 5.44 games.

His journey from Sale to Munster was a two-part affair. The Irish province tried to sign him at 21 before reaching an agreement three years later. Haley believes his decision to stay put was initially the right one and by the time he moved he had become a much better player.

Munster’s Mike Haley scores a try. Photography: Ben Brady/Inpho

His summers in Kerry ensured there wasn’t much culture shock when he and his partner, Lucy – they now have two children, Frankie and Ivy (10 months), three years old – moved to Limerick, but what surprised him the most? “One of the biggest shocks for me at Munster was the work rate of the guys. I had never been around such a hardworking group.

“You didn’t have to tell people to do things, they just did it. It was good to be a part of it because one of my traits that I like to think I’m good at is work pace. I will work all day. Seeing people doing the exact same thing was fantastic.

His easy-going nature meant he settled in quickly without compromising his personality. He arrived at practice on a scooter; it inspired several teammates to make similar purchases.

He loved every minute of his time at Munster. His contract ends next summer (2023), but all things being equal, he would like to extend this arrangement. He said, “It’s out of my control. Do they want me? I loved my time here, it’s been fantastic, if they want to keep me that would be amazing. It’s a sabbatical year so there’s still the end of the season and then the conversations start to happen.

One person who has facilitated his development as a player is Munster full-backs coach Stephen Larkham – he returns to Australia at the end of the season – an outstanding half-back and full-back in his day and a World Cup winner world with the Wallabies. Haley said: “From a personal perspective, he’s great to have a chinwag with. He understands the pressures, the different situations you can find yourself in as a fullback.

“Sometimes it’s hard to talk to other coaches who haven’t played there. They just haven’t experienced what might go through your mind at certain points in the game. Whether you want to have a crack, whether you want to return the ball, what are you looking for, what you need to read throughout the game and what the attackers need; he understood everything because he lived it.

“What I also discovered was that he would be very receptive to the fact that there was an area of ​​your game that you needed to work on. He would listen to you, listen to the group [and then] implement in training.

Critical

Externally, Munster’s back game has been the subject of fairly vocal criticism at times, but Haley argues that this is more perception than reality. “A number of our poorest performances were just close, physical games where neither team gave an inch and in those games you have to pick your moment carefully.

“Obviously some of them we don’t quite understand [but when] we saw the opportunity that we improved remarkably to be able to seize those opportunities and it showed clearly this year.

It was just a lot of fun being able to get the ball and attack the line, something that I built with Stephen [Larkham]

“The perception is there, and we talk about it constantly, so it fuels its own fire. We believe 100% in what we do [and] understand what we are trying to do. We know how good we can be.

Haley is often a catalyst with her counter-attacking skills. But he highlighted his teammates’ work to come back and support him which allows him to choose from a menu of options. “Your main attributes as a full-back are being good under the high ball and good on the counter-attack.

“It’s a part of the game that I love. It was just a lot of fun being able to get your hands on the ball and attack the line, something that I built with Stephen [Larkham] so that I can be more beneficial to the team. That works.

He continued: “The touches I want, I want them to be productive and I want them to be for the good of the team rather than just being touches for fun. Yeah, I work really hard to get positions where I can get my hands on the ball and get things moving. It’s something you can always improve on. »

Haley earned just one cap for Ireland in a warm-up game against Italy ahead of the 2019 World Cup. He’s had a few conversations with current Ireland full-backs coach Mike Catt and the message is that they are keeping tabs on him, but Haley’s attitude is pragmatic in that a place in the Irish squad is determined by the opinions of others, so he doesn’t sweat it. It gives primacy to Munster.

It’s not that he’s apathetic, he’d like to be involved and on the basis that Munster’s Player of the Season so far is arguably a straight shot between Haley and Jack O’Donoghue, he should be a serious contender for a tour with Ireland. in New Zealand during the summer.

He can improve those prospects with a high-caliber performance against Toulouse. “You have to give them respect but not too much respect that you then go into your shell. If I’m honest, I can’t wait, you know it’s gonna be a real contest, almost a test match [in intensity] against quality players.

“As a full-back, if you watch the game [Munster lost to Toulouse] last year, I did a lot of work. Their attack offers great variety in what they try to do, whether it’s kicking, offloading or holding the ball, then they have players who can produce magic moments.

“You have to expect everything and if you’re not, you’re not prepared.” Haley is unlikely to fall into this category. His hope, and that of Munster and his supporters, is that it is the attacking brilliance from the back that grabs the headlines on Saturday night. It would bode well.

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