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Summer signing Mike Haley building trust in Munster's 15 shirt

The former Sale Sharks fullback has been first-choice for Johann van Graan this season.

IT’S A BUSY time of the season for Mike Haley on the pitch with Munster facing into two crucial Heineken Cup weekends, but the fullback isn’t lacking for something to keep his mind off rugby. 

The Preston native’s partner has just moved over to Limerick and they’re expecting their first child next month.

“Four weeks and counting, so we’re in the time when we’re just kind of waiting,” says the affable 24-year-old.

Mike Haley Haley has settled in well to life with Munster. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“She came over on Sunday. She was still working in England, she’s just gone on maternity [leave] now and she’s come over.

“We’ve got all the baby furniture in flat-pack, waiting to be made. We were struggling with the pram for about two hours trying to work it!”

While Haley will have plenty of adapting to do in the coming months away from his job, he’s now feeling fully settled into life with Munster after his move from Sale Sharks last summer.

While Andrew Conway’s outing in the 15 shirt against Connacht last weekend might have given Munster boss Johann van Graan food for thought, Haley has established himself as first-choice in the position.

Haley has started 13 of Munster’s 17 games so far this season and is beginning to reap the benefits of the exposure. 

“A lot of things take a bit of time and I definitely feel that you build a connection with players the more you play with them,” says Haley.

“I didn’t play last weekend [against Connacht], but the boys pulled out another great performance. The last performance I was involved in was the Leinster one and you get a feeling in a game when some things are starting to go right and you don’t really need to communicate as much.

Keith Earls celebrates scoring with Mike Haley, Andrew Conway and Tyler Bleyendaal Haley's last outing was against Leinster. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“You just kind of have a feel for things, being in the right place at the right time and that’s how it feels at the moment.”

That sense of familiarity is, of course, so vital for a fullback.

While many of us focus on the attacking side of the game when assessing a fullback’s quality, their work off the ball in covering kick space and directing their team’s defence is as important.

This is an area where Haley excels, though it can be difficult to appreciate when watching on television, with zoomed-in angles depriving viewers of the opportunity to note the movement and subtle communication that is involved behind the frontline defence.

Haley is now building a strong understanding of how wings Keith Earls and Conway function.

“It’s all a bit of a feeling, isn’t it? Gloucester is going to be extremely loud and in those moments you need to have a feel of where your winger might be.

“Or if it’s a nine or 10 in the backfield, we all know and understand what we’re trying to do and where we are on the pitch.

“You have a feeling and sometimes a lad might be 40 metres away from you and I can’t yell and tell him what to do. It’s a trust and that’s something that’s been building over the season and definitely been improving each game.”

Mike Haley makes a break Haley has been a composed presence for Munster. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Haley’s comfort in communicating was clear in the build-up to Earls’ intercept try against Leinster, which came at the end of an impressive defensive passage.

Just in behind the frontline defence, Haley was marshalling forwards into good positions close to the ruck as the fatigue set in, until he opted to shoot up into the line wide on the right outside Earls, giving his wing a little more security in racing up to intercept Ciarán Frawley’s pass.

Earlier in the same game, Haley made a superb one-on-one tackle on Jordan Larmour after the Leinster fullback had breached Munster’s defence.

“It’s funny, you don’t actually think about it in the moment,” says Haley of that type of tackle.

“You just see the lad’s made the break, whoever it is, and you just want to close down time and space as quickly as you possibly can, whilst keeping yourself active and making sure that whichever side he’s going to step, you have a shoulder that’s going to hit him.

“It’s split-second stuff, you don’t really have time to think. You just go and do it, and that’s that.”

The Munster fullback has shown glimpses of his attacking ability for van Graan’s side this season, creating opportunities for others with some of his offloading and passing, but still hasn’t quite shown his full potential on that side of the game yet.

Haley has useful familiarity with tomorrow’s Heineken Cup opposition, Gloucester, having played against them frequently in his time with Sale.

Mike Haley Haley has started 13 games so far this season. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

He also played alongside Danny Cipriani for several seasons at Sale and says the out-half was a “great mentor” for him during their three years as team-mates.

Cipriani returns from a chest injury to face Munster tomorrow evening and will ensure Haley has a busy game attempting to read the Gloucester playmaker’s attacking intentions.

“You’ve got to be on your toes but it’s a good thing,” says Haley. “It keeps you thinking, doesn’t let you settle and, if I’m honest, it’s a great challenge. You want to play against the best players and he’s one of them.”

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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