Vincent Hogan: Declan said 'John, I don’t have a place for you’ I just said‘ Thanks. Goodluck’
John Hayes is the most decorated prop in the history of Irish rugby but he won’t be clinging to past glories in his new life off the pitch
Published 28/01/2012 | 05:00
A chuckle reaches down into the grand canyon of his rib-cage, triggering great, jolly tremors as John Hayes considers his typical day.
"I'm still trying to figure it out," he says with a booming laugh. The beginning of the rest of his life throbs with everyday duties -- an early-morning run to Tineteriffe National School with Sally, then back to the farm for a day of high glamour before Sally's pick-up in the evening and, lastly, the gentle tyrannies of dinner-time as a house-husband.
His body has stopped creaking, the sense of strangeness is abating.
He says the first time his new circumstance really hit home was two weeks ago as he sprawled on the couch watching Munster beat Castres.
Fiona and the kids were with him. So too his parents and a brother. "It was weird," he says, "knowing that you're not part of it anymore."
Home is a fine house of slate-grey stone, sunk into the family land less than a mile outside Cappamore, on the Newport road. All wooden beams and lovely, open-plan freedom, it accommodates his size as well as the refinements of the three women in his life.
Roisin, her hair a riot of golden curls, demands his attention as if he is some junior member of her personal staff. He picks her up and pushes the three-year-old high towards the rafters. She shrieks in delight.
"No fear," chuckles the man known as 'The Bull', his great arms accustomed to bigger weight.
Soon the suckling cows will be calving and he'll be setting his alarm for 3am torchlight checks of the farm's maternity ward. This is his life now. He knows what Fiona has given him and now, maybe, her ambitions might get the air they need to breathe.
Ireland's most capped women's rugby player, she is an accomplished coach too, armed already with a Grade Two badge.
Work as a physiotherapist takes her to Nenagh General Hospital, but rugby is Fiona's passion. Hayes smiles. "She'd have more coaching ambitions than I'd have," he chuckles. If rugby has more chapters to write for this household, it will be written in his wife's hand.
But, for now, he is determined to keep the game a little at arm's length. There are no plans to attend Heineken Cup or Six Nations matches this year.
And he won't be chasing old comrades' company. The Munster players like to lunch at a particular restaurant in Castletroy after training but, if he finds himself in Limerick any day soon, 'Delish' will be the last place on his map.
"I don't want to be in denial," he says. "You have to change. Like, in time, I'll probably go in and meet the lads again, but not now. I'm not between training sessions anymore. It's finished. I don't want to be hanging on. I just feel it's time for me to let them at it.
"Like, I haven't worn a tracksuit since I finished. I've made an absolute decision on that. It's going to be either jeans or combats or something else. If I'm going anywhere now, I won't wear anything sporty. That part of my life is over."
The public affection so palpable at his Christmas farewell game left a profound imprint. But, at 38, 'Bull' Hayes understands that nostalgia and sentiment and even a nation's unequivocal love cannot protect a man from time. For all the things he will miss, there are a hundred others that he won't.
His body, he knew, had begun to acknowledge the voice of protest.
"Training was getting harder and harder," he concedes. "Going in on a Monday and Tuesday, when you'd be doing contact training, was starting to take its toll. I'd go out on the field, thinking, 'F**k, something's aching.' But you'd get running then and you'd get going. You'd always get going. After 20 minutes, you'd be fine.
"Me and Dougie Howlett would have the craic. We'd be running past one another and make eye contact. 'You cranking up as well?' I'd say to him. We'd be laughing. He's younger than me, but kind of in the same boat. We'd be the oul fellas, jogging up and down, trying to get going.
"And you'd see the young lads, zero to flat-out straight away. I couldn't do that. Training standards keep going up and up and I was always able to go with it. But now I was starting to slow down and there was a gap beginning to appear.
"I found it harder and harder to feel that I was part of it."
THE WORLD CUP had been his rainbow and, once it disappeared, the strain of his chores stiffened. It was the week before the Ireland squad announcement and Declan Kidney called him to his room in Carton House. 'Bull' Hayes says he knew what was coming. Declan likes to think his face is a blank page but, to those who really know the Irish coach, his body language is poor at keeping secrets. Their conversation was short and strictly formal.
"Literally two minutes," he recalls. "I mean I knew the minute I walked in the door what it (Kidney's decision) was going to be. He wasn't calling me in to tell me, 'You're going!' I could see the look on his face.
"He just said, 'John, I don't have a place for you.' I said, 'That's fine.' He was explaining that it was just the make-up of the squad, how they were going with four props, taking fellas that could play both sides. I didn't fit in.
"I suppose other, younger fellas might have had a longer conversation. I mean, if you're only 22 in that position, you're going to be asking, 'What do I need to do to get in the next time?' But there wasn't going to be a next time for me. What had I to ask? Do I need to work on my defence?
"I was as fit as I could be so if they thought my legs were starting to go, then that was fair enough. I just said, 'Thanks. Good luck'."
Two days later, he faced the peculiar torture of a game with Connacht in Donnybrook. His final day in green. A soporific August Thursday, the 'Ireland Select XI' rolling over out-stretched opponents by six tries to nil. Hard to get himself up for it?
"Aaah Jesus," he grimaces. Marcus Horan replaced him after 49 ambling minutes. "I went up to play, then home and that was it."
He'd been due to retire at the end of last season, but the lure of a possible World Cup swansong led to a contract extension and a summer of intensifying effort. Hayes hoped he had done enough.
"I wouldn't have tried if I didn't think I'd make it," he reflects now. "I didn't for a minute think I was going to be first-choice on the team or anything, but I thought I had a shot at the squad.
"I'd got back on the Munster team at the end of last season and played it out. I was happy with my form. But that was last season. I was nearly 38. You are what you are at that age.
"So, I think t'was more to do with fitness. Did they think I could last the pace? I was conscious of really working hard for the summer, so my fitness couldn't be a reason. Unfortunately, it didn't happen.
"I wouldn't say I was gutted. I gave it a go. Like I can't sit here and say, 'Ah f**k it, if only I'd done a bit more...' The way I look at it, I trained as hard as I could. I did everything I could do. It didn't happen. It was the end of the career anyway. And I kind of accepted it."
So ended one of the great, accidental journeys in Irish rugby history.
For the 'Bull' Hayes story followed none of the conventions for so long considered de rigeur in the game.
He grew up in a GAA household and his childhood dreams were bound up, largely, in Limerick hurling. He'd come into the world two months after Eamonn Grimes lifted the Liam MacCarthy Cup. He won a Limerick minor 'B' hurling championship from centre-back with Cappamore in 1990 and made an East Limerick Primary School selection alongside Ollie and James Moran.
But his world changed one evening, closing the front gate of the family home.
A neighbour he'd met regularly at the creamery had been selling the charms of Bruff Rugby Club. John O'Dea could see a potential second-row in the tall, skinny eldest son of Mike Hayes. "Come down, you'd love it," he'd say. And John Hayes would nod, delivering another false promise.
But this evening O'Dea happened to be passing as 'Bull' pulled the gate. "I'm going training tonight, will you come?" he asked. When Hayes agreed, O'Dea said he'd be back to collect him in 20 minutes. "If I hadn't met him, I'd never have gone," he smiles now.
That was a Tuesday night and the following Sunday an epic career got under way with the now storied 0-0 draw against Newcastlewest. "Straight in, blindside flanker, not a f*****g clue!" he recalls, the laughter bursting out of him.
"Didn't even know the rules. I remember being ahead of the kicker, everything. It was a pre-season game and the standard was 'malojin' I'd say. I'd give anything to get a video of it, to see how bad it really was.
"The thing is, picking up a rugby ball wasn't even considered in Cappamore. I didn't even know anyone that played the game. I'd no friends or relations playing rugby. But from the moment I started, I loved it. Something about it, the way you could just tear in."
Bruff didn't have an U-20 team, so he transferred to Shannon under the care of Brendan Foley. Then a light bulb went on in his head. A Kiwi of his acquaintance, Kynan McGregor, had just gone back to New Zealand after marrying a Bruff girl. Hayes phoned him with an idea. "How's about I come and play rugby in your town?"
He'd never been on a plane before but, in one dramatic swoop, became an aviation veteran. It took him 40 hours to reach Invercargill, via Shannon, Heathrow, Los Angeles, Auckland and Christchurch. But he liked his new home immediately. "It was very remote and agricultural," Hayes remembers. "You'd see tractors driving up and down the street. Cattle trucks."
He would stay for 20 months, piling on weight and self-confidence. During the week, he worked as a welder on the maintenance crew in a tannery. At weekends, he went to war.
Marist's scrum coach, 'Doc' Cournane, observed his changing body shape and decided the front-row might be 'Bull's' workplace. He will forever remember his first game. It was against Woodlands and a vast prop called Aaron Dempsey. "Got f*****g mangled," he laughs. "They put me in at loose-head and the shock to the system was unbelievable.
"Every muscle in my neck and back felt like it was trapped afterwards. It was days before I was any way right again."
Shannon were in on the experiment, Brian O'Brien phoning regularly for updates. When Hayes finally came home, he was neither one thing nor another. Some days a second-row, others a prop. Shannon would win four AILs in a row under Niall O'Donovan, but Hayes was a regular selection only for the last two.
By 1998, he'd won a single, summer tour cap for Munster when he met Anthony Foley one day in Limerick. Foley had just seen Ireland's squad announcement for a tour of South Africa on teletext. "He told me I was in," says Hayes. "I didn't believe him."
At the time, he was back welding in Willie Conway's engineering firm. He'd need time off. As he contemplated telling Willie, Munster called, offering a full-time contract. His days as a welder were over.
The rest is a scrapbook of Munster's and Ireland's greatest days. He was one of five new caps making their debuts against Scotland in the Six Nations of 2000. They put him rooming with Peter Clohessy in the Berkeley Court, ostensibly to calm him. Clohessy had some fun.
"I was wound up," recalls Hayes. "I'd be lying on the bed, tossing and turning. And Claw's across from me watching television, laughing. 'What's up ya?' he'd say. "Then he'd burst out laughing which, in fairness, was making me laugh too."
Having trailed by 10 points, Ireland rallied to win 44-22. The subsequent night is a mystery. "I remember it up to a point," he grins. "After that, it's just a blur. Got absolutely hammered. Shaggy (Shane Horgan), ROG (Ronan O'Gara) and myself were picked on as new fellas.
"I can just about remember walking up to get my cap. But that's about it. There was loads of wine and shorts and I've never gone near either since. I gave up drink altogether about six years ago. But just the smell of wine or whiskey makes me sick since that day in 2000. If I smell them, I start to gag."
Ireland soon followed that win with their first victory in Paris since 1972. "T'was ridiculous," says Hayes. "You think back now and it strikes you that we haven't won there since. We didn't even appreciate it. With young fellas, I suppose that's what you get."
There have been momentous highs and crippling lows since. He will forever curse the moment at Croke Park in '07 he was left one-on-one with Vincent Clerc. "I missed the tackle," he sighs. "Looked around and, f**k it, couldn't believe he'd scored. It wasn't about the Grand Slam gone. It was more we'd lost the first rugby game in Croke Park."
He made the Lions tours of '05 and '09 and built friendships that he will take to the grave. The second tour was more enjoyable. He'd been put on stand-by and, by his own admission, "did absolutely nothing". Then Euan Murray got injured in a Tuesday night game and on the Wednesday a girl came on the line, asking would he take a call from Ian McGeechan.
"Jesus, I will, yeah." Within 24 hours he was in a Lions tracksuit and would play in the third Test. A few months earlier, he'd added a Grand Slam to his Triple Crowns and two Heineken Cup successes. John Hayes was the most decorated prop Irish rugby had ever known.
HE HAS AN EXERCISE bike in the house, but chuckles, "Some of the fellas will laugh when they hear that." His body is still adjusting to the post-professional life. He notices the involuntary groans no longer sound when he gets up off the couch. Pain he once took as part of living has disappeared.
But he will remain wary of this gentler lifestyle until he sees what it deposits on his frame.
"I don't want to get heavy," he says emphatically. "It's going to be interesting to see what way my body shape goes. I'm obviously going to lose muscle, but will I go down in weight or up? Axel Foley obviously went up, if you've seen him lately (laughing). I don't want to go that way!"
Chances are, Hayes won't be a coach. The gene that drives Fiona in that direction is conspicuously absent from his own persona. "I'd like to help out, but maybe not that way," says 'Bull' Hayes. "If young fellas ever wanted a one-to-one or something like that to ask for advice, I definitely feel I could do that."
Whatever he does, he'll do it quietly. That won't change.