Hayes still savours Croke Park win
It was a cold, wet February night in 2007 and the good times had yet to come to a crashing halt. Mortgages were pretty accessible, Fianna Fáil and Bertie were about to be returned to power and the biggest issue in the country was how God Save The Queen would be received at GAA headquarters in Croke Park, which was hosting its first ever Ireland-England Six Nations rugby match.
Front row and in the thick of action was John Hayes and the image that remains most from the game is the Bull's face as he and the country bellowed out Amhrain na bhFiann. Enjoying retirement with his family these days, Hayes remembers the momentous day very clearly.
John played underage football and hurling for Cappamore in east Limerick. Following a decorated career when he won almost every available rugby trophy in the northern hemisphere, to this day Hayes maintains his biggest sporting regret is not capturing the U12 hurling county championship in 1985 – beaten by a goal in the final.
From the Portnard GAA field in Cappamore to Croke Park is a journey few make but Hayes did just that. "Like a lot of lads, I grew up in a very strong GAA area so you would be conscious of everything that came with playing in Croke Park and what it meant to people. Unfortunately, Limerick never got too many days out in Croke Park but there were so many players you would look up to who played there. As a young fella all you wanted to do was play at Croke Park. There was no bigger place."
For months before the English game, speculation was rife about what might occur. Hayes admits even he couldn't avoid it. "We all knew the background that came with playing there. In the big Grand Slam games there was a major lead into it, but this was different. It was really bigger than anything we had seen before. Lansdowne Road was being done up and we were now going to an even bigger home, which had a great sporting significance and outside of sport too. It caught the imagination of the whole country.
"England were coming to Croke Park to take us on. You couldn't go into a shop without hearing about it. On that Irish team, there was a lot of lads like myself who would have come from a GAA background or had a strong interest in the GAA. We all desperately wanted to play there – Ireland against England in the GAA's national stadium. How bigger could you get?"
While most players have hazy recollections of big games when they retire, Hayes remembers that one clearly.
"They say in most games that you can cut the atmosphere with a knife, but on that evening that is truly how it was. When we walked out everyone was in their seats or up on Hill 16, there was nobody running in at the last minute. Everyone wanted to see what would happen. We were very conscious and aware of what was in front of us. We felt a responsibly and wanted to do the country proud – that was our job."
On a damp and cold Dublin night, God Save The Queen was greeted with respect from the 82,000 as the English players sang lustily facing the Hogan Stand. It finished to widespread applause and momentary silence before the opening strains of Amhrain na bhFiann were aired. During the national anthem and Ireland's Call, the cameras focused on Hayes's emotional face as he cast his arms around captain Brian O'Driscoll.
"You could hear our crowd giving it their all and you could hear it coming at us. It rolled down from the stands towards us and straight into your ears. You couldn't but be hit by it and feel it."
What followed will live forever when great Irish sporting days are recalled as the home team simply overran England across the hallowed turf: 43-13 the final score.
"When you look back on it, to put that score up against England was incredible. It was just one of those special days. Everything that you wanted to go right for us went right – kicking, balls bouncing, every tackle. At half time, we all just said: 'keep going, don't stop, keep hitting them'. And we did. It was a great game and a nice one to look back at."
While the country partied that Saturday night, Hayes and his wife Fiona had a sick daughter to mind.
"I went back to the hotel and Sally – my 10-month-old daughter – had an ear infection so I got the team doctor to have a look at her and see what we could do. Myself and Fiona spent the night with her in the bedroom trying to make her feel better.
"That is the beauty of sport. You go through an occasion like that and you come back to your wife and baby daughter and she is there with an earache and all you want to do is take the pain from her ear and put it in your own. she is far more important than what happened beforehand. That is beauty and contrast of sport and life."