Wednesday 26 April 2017

Vincent Hogan: Humble hero Hayes one of our greatest

The size of the space John Hayes is about to leave behind in Irish rugby won't be filled by another tighthead's jersey. That will happen only with the consolation of time. Because 'Bull's' story has left its handwriting on all our lives.

It feels as if he came to us around the same time as radio and the aeroplane and, overnight, became a big-day staple. There's been a palpable comfort for the national psyche in seeing Hayes jog down dressing-room tunnels and out into great canyons of noise.

But he was 26 when making his Irish debut against Scotland in 2000, which means that, almost 12 years later, his continuing status as a rugby pro amounts to an eccentricity.

No doubt, his style will be to slip quietly away now, to hang his boots up with all the ceremony of a man putting out a bin. He hates few things more than the public's attention and is drawn to media interviews just about every other eclipse of the moon.

But there should be a fanfare for John Hayes. There ought really be a soundtrack of nostalgia and thanks for a career that has bookended the most successful era in Irish rugby history.

The irony is that Hayes spent almost his entire career being questioned as a scrummager (his height seemingly made the process difficult), yet enjoying the unequivocal affection of his people.

This may have been because he is the most undemonstrative of men. People read humility in his discomfort with the flashbulbs of fame and see essential decency in how he has carried himself as an instantly recognisable sportsman.

When Ireland won the Grand Slam in '09, Hayes got Declan Kidney's permission to sidestep the ceremonial end of the homecoming. With any other player, Kidney would almost certainly have demurred.

But Hayes explained that he had seen his two-week-old daughter, Roisin, just twice and now simply wanted to be home with Fiona and the baby. For Kidney, the sincerity of the request was uncontestable. Refusal would have seemed almost inhumane. So Hayes watched Tommy Bowe's famous cabaret on a TV set in his Cappamore farmhouse.

There has always been something old-fashioned about the 'Bull'. The sense of a man drawn to the simple concept of competition without much truck for the other stuff, the interviews, the photo shoots, the roped-off sections of nightclubs where celebrity can make a man feel like the prize exhibit in a zoo.

For more than a decade now, Hayes has lived two parallel lives. The family farm has been his antidote to the artificial intimacies of life as a professional sportsman. He sees himself as farmer first, rugby player second. A mindset that keeps him grounded.

Yet, his career surely stands comparison with any of the world's great front-rows. One hundred and five caps for Ireland, twice that number for Munster, two Lions tours. Triple Crowns, Heineken Cups and a Grand Slam. Everything accumulated with the quiet grace of a man forever tickled by his daft good fortune.

Ronan O'Gara tells a story of the 2005 Lions tour of New Zealand. They played a midweek game against Southland in Invercargill. Hayes had spent a couple of summers there in the mid-90s as a greenhorn second-row with Marist, locals helpfully reinventing him as a prop. At a dinner after the Lions match, Hayes' team-mates hounded him into making a speech.

"Eventually, he caved in," recalled O'Gara in his autobiography. "Hayes took the microphone and said a few words about how much he loved this part of the world. When I say a few words, I'd say it was less than 30. But still, we were all shocked. None of us had heard him speak in public before.

"His wife, Fiona, said it was longer than the speech he made on their wedding day."

'Bull' won a pile of things in his career and, in recent years, came to be treated almost as a kind of circus curiosity. As the honours accumulated, a penny seemed to drop that Ireland really had no viable alternative. People began to worry about him like they might worry about an overworked old bridge.

DOMINANT

And there was a beautiful quaintness to that thought, to the idea of Ireland becoming a dominant force in Europe whilst leaning so heavily on a man who didn't attend a rugby school and never even played the game until he was 19. Actually, the story goes that 'Bull' Hayes' formal introduction to rugby union was a game for Bruff against Newcastle West. It ended scoreless.

He doesn't drink, yet made an exception the day in 2001 that England's Jason Leonard equalled Sean Fitzpatrick's appearance record for a forward. That happened in a Six Nations game against Ireland at Twickenham and, to Hayes' astonishment, Leonard materialised in the Irish dressing-room afterwards to present the young Limerick man with his jersey.

Leonard's name and the match date had been embroidered onto it, so this was no ordinary shirt.

The English prop was also carrying a six-pack of beer and began handing out cans to each member of Ireland's front-row. Hayes decided to sup like a seasoned drinker. "I suppose t'would have been bad mannered not to," he later observed.

'Bull' Hayes has been a multiple of things in a garlanded career, but that was never one of them.

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