In a cruel twist of faith, Tyler Bleyendaal’s Munster career ended in the same way that it started, with a neck injury.
The 29-year-old Christchurch native sadly called time on his professional rugby career this week after a long-suffering neck injury forced him to retire.
Bleyendaal suffered a prolapsed disc in his neck while playing against Waikato for Canterbury in the ITM Cup in August 2014. The injury would delay his arrival in Munster when he signed for the southern province under then-head coach Anthony Foley.
13 months later, in August 2015, he would make his Munster debut in a PRO12 clash with Benetton.
Since then, the Kiwi enjoyed some great days in a Munster shirt but due to his neck issues, which kept re-emerging throughout his five seasons with the southern province, and a quad injury he suffered in his first campaign, he was limited to just 62 appearances.
Seeing a player forced out of the game with an injury is always sad to see but it’s particularly cruel when it happens to a player who had all the ingredients – talent, determination, mental strength, leadership – to succeed and ultimately become an international Test player.
Bleyendaal announced himself to the world in 2010 when he captained the New Zealand U20s to their third consecutive Junior World Cup under the stewardship of Glasgow Warriors head coach and newly-appointed Wallabies boss, Dave Rennie. The out-half would also go on to become the top points scorer in that competition.
His form in that World Cup led him to be nominated for Junior World Player of the Year, only to be beaten to the title by his teammate at the time, Julian Savea, who would go on to win 54 caps for the All Blacks.
Rennie had a close relationship with Bleyendaal back in 2010 and he would become even more familiar with his talents in the next few years as he coached against him in the ITM Cup and Super Rugby.
The newly appointed Australia head coach admits he was incredibly disappointed when he heard the news this week.
“I know he’s had a lot of issues in recent years so I guess I wasn’t surprised but I’m really disappointed for him because he’s such a good man,” Rennie tells Pundit Arena. “It’s always disappointing for a player to be forced out of the game before their time.”
Bleyendaal attended the famed rugby nursery, Christchurch Boys’ High School, as a teenager, which in the past has contributed to the development of future All Blacks like Dan Carter, Anton Lienert-Brown and Brodie Retallick, to name but a few.
However, Bleyendaal wasn’t one of these big-name child prodigies who were touted early on to have a big future. He had to graft. It wasn’t until he was selected for a trial camp before the 2010 Junior World Cup that the selectors and Rennie himself, took notice.
“When you look at 2010, I think we only had seven players who played New Zealand Secondary Schools a couple of years earlier, we’d scour the country. Obviously from a talent ID point of view, working really hard with the provincial unions to uncover the best talent, it wasn’t necessarily just coming out of the big schools.
“So I didn’t know much about Tyler until he was nominated and then we started going through a process over six months where we could come away on a camp to learn about character and he really stood out from a strong leadership point of view.
“And then we got him into a lot of rugby stuff. He was really impressive, he was a big man for a 10 but he had a really strong skillset. A phenomenal goalkicker. The game he could play and the confidence he could play with, he ended up being an obvious selection for captain on that tour.”
One of the reasons for the success of rugby in New Zealand, and there are many, is the emphasis they put on a player’s attitude and personality. As Rennie recalls, it was the first thing they looked at when considering these young men for squad selection.
Bleyendaal was head and shoulders above the rest in this regard.
“When you first meet guys like Tyler, the first thing we did in those days was that we took them away on a camp which had no rugby content, it was a lot to take players out of their comfort zone and for us to learn a lot about them.
“Certainly in the camp where we’re looking at guys saying, ‘look, it doesn’t matter how good of a rugby player that guy is, he won’t be going to the World Cup’. Because you worry about how they are going to be under pressure versus someone like Tyler who you’d think, ‘Jeez, I hope he can play well because he’s exactly the type of person you want to take to the World Cup.’
“He was impressive from the start, obviously of good stock, high character, great work ethic and of course, he was a hell of a rugby player so he had a massive tournament.”
Making Bleyendaal captain was a straightforward decision for Rennie.
“When we talked about him captaining the side he was probably a bit surprised but it was an easy choice for us. Because he’s got really high standards and a real attention to detail on his own game. That made it easy for him to challenge others.
“It’s something that we stressed with our leaders, we wanted them to be demanding. I thought Tyler was great in that area. He’s a role model. He’s beyond reproach. You can tell others because you’re doing everything right. It was an easy choice, he did a fantastic job and he really grew into the role.”
Bleyendaal would go on to play provincial rugby with Canterbury over the next few years and then Super Rugby with the Crusaders. Unfortunately for him, he had the world’s greatest out-half in front of him in the form of Dan Carter.
But it wasn’t just Carter, Colin Slade and Tom Taylor were also involved with the All Blacks at that time which meant that Bleyendaal probably didn’t get the level exposure as he would have hoped.
The decision was then made to move to Munster with the ultimate goal of representing Ireland at international level under the then three-year residency rule. As we know, that would never be achieved but Rennie recalls there being surprise in New Zealand at the time of the announcement of his departure.
“I would say there was a bit of surprise because not many young guys leave at that stage. Everybody is chasing the All Black dream. There was a fair bit of competition even at the Crusaders around that time. Dan Carter, Colin Slade, Tom Taylor was still there playing multiple positions.
“So there was a lot of competition to get that consistent game time at the Crusaders. There was a fair bit of surprise but I thought after a couple of years, I’d always thought he would go on to play for Ireland once he became eligible and so on. Of course, he’s been dogged with injury ever since.”
Rennie continued: “He’s a high-quality man. It’s sad we didn’t get to see him play international footy because he’s certainly good enough.”
Bleyendaal will no doubt take stock before making a decision on what his next move will be. There have been no shortage of calls for him to go into coaching with Munster head coach Johann van Graan recently stating that the Kiwi is cut out for a successful career in coaching.
Rennie echoes these sentiments.
“Absolutely (he’d make a great coach). Because he’s smart, he’s got a good way about him. I think personably, his ability to pass on knowledge and grow someone’s game would be really strong.
“He’s passionate about the game. He’d make a fantastic coach. I suppose time will tell.”
If Rennie’s testament is anything to go by, the next chapter in Tyler Bleyendaal’s rugby career is right around the corner.