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'Not a perfect' debut but Munster fullback Haley is an exciting addition

The 24-year-old was part of Joe Schmidt’s Ireland camp earlier this week.

LOSING A FULLBACK with 35 Test caps would be a blow to most squads and the departure of Simon Zebo to Racing 92 was certainly something Munster would have liked to avoid.

The Cork man is now readying himself for the start of the Top 14 next weekend, however, and Munster have moved swiftly on.

22-year-old Stephen Fitzgerald had the first opportunity of the season in the 15 shirt as he started Munster’s pre-season win over London Irish on Friday night, and the former Ardscoil Rís man is certainly a player of great promise.

Munster's Stephen Fitzgerald Stephen Fitzgerald started at 15 last night. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

There was also a first chance to watch new fullback Mike Haley for the Munster fans who aren’t too familiar with his ability.

While the 24-year-old was understandably not at his best in his first outing of the new season, there were brief glimpses of his quality – a burst of footwork, a commanding aerial take, his gliding acceleration.

Haley is English-born and played for the England Saxons as recently as 2016 but remains Irish-qualified through his Tralee-born grandmother and he is very much on Joe Schmidt’s radar.

The Munster fullback was part of the extended Ireland squad that assembled in Carton House earlier this week, but the early involvement under Schmidt indicates that Haley will be in the international mix.

Those who have seen Haley play in the Premiership won’t be too surprised. He played more than 70 times for Sale in England’s top flight after debuting in 2013 and while he wasn’t ever a prolific try-scorer for the Sharks, he was consistently influential.

Munster's Mike Haley Haley played 40 minutes for Munster in Cork. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Sale’s fans were disappointed to lose Haley but the offer from Munster, along with the possibility of playing for Ireland, was difficult to resist.

Of course, Haley will face strong competition in Munster’s back three, even after the exit of Zebo. Fitzgerald will have ambitions of playing regularly, while Ireland international Andrew Conway is a strong option at fullback for head coach Johann van Graan.

Conway started slightly more games on the wing than at fullback for Munster last season, but his quality in the 15 shirt is well-established and he has emerged as an important player for the province in recent seasons.

Given that Keith Earls, Darren Sweetnam, Alex Wootton, Calvin Nash, the currently sidelined Ronan O’Mahony are among the wing options, it may well be that 27-year-old Conway slotting into fullback works best for Munster.

The arrival of Haley, with his Test level potential, certainly brings another interesting option into the mix and he will hope to show Munster fans his true ability in the coming weeks.

Munster's Mike Haley Haley played more than 70 Premiership games for Sale. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

“We signed him for specific reasons,” said Munster boss van Graan of Haley after the win against London Irish. “I thought his aerial game was really good tonight, I thought he showed some good feet.

“There were one or two collisions he got dominated in which we’ll have a look at, but he made some good decisions. There was a loose pass four minutes from the end there, so not a perfect performance but I thought it was a decent start from him.

“Fitzy also had some decent touches, one or two mistakes, so it’s game on.”

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Murray Kinsella

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