Hagan form to put bull back in Kidney court
WHEN you are counting the time to your 40th birthday in months rather years and you work and pal around with blokes in their 20s, an element of 'old man' slagging is inevitable.
They hush when 'Reeling In The Years' comes on, so you can "remember the old days properly," buy you packets of Werther's Originals and pull out chairs so you "can take the weight off".
And then there are the questions. These range from "is it true you met Eve on the rebound after Adam kicked her out?" to "were you not ashamed leaving the tent to take a leak when Brian Boru was killed?"
All affectionate ribbing, of course -- or so you tell yourself late at night as you wipe away the tears while simultaneously trying to count your beard's grey hairs. You try the "you won't be so smart in 10 years, boy" retort, but it falls flat on the realisation that, by then, satisfaction will be consumed by sagging breasts and depressing thoughts of hitting 50.
The sad fact is, the irreversible nature of the ageing process does not allow comebacks.
John Hayes turns 37 in a couple of weeks and is, by some distance, the oldest member of Ireland's 34-man panel for the November internationals announced last Tuesday. It is impossible to speak highly enough of the Cappamore man's contribution to Irish rugby since he broke through with Shannon in the mid-to-late 1990s.
The statistics tell part of the story -- 102 caps for Ireland (the first player to break 100), 183 appearances for Munster, one Grand Slam, four Triple Crowns, two Heineken Cups and two Lions tours, and that's before you add in his contribution to Shannon's bulging trophy cabinet.
But, what even those remarkable stats fail to convey is the extent to which Hayes was the most indispensable player in Irish rugby for the bones of 10 years, bar none. The 'Holy Trinity' of Brian O'Driscoll, Ronan O'Gara and Paul O'Connell will dominate reviews in years to come, but Hayes was the foundation stone for province and country.
Hayes has been written off repeatedly, primarily for his scrummaging, but you do not amass the trophies Munster and Ireland have on Hayes' watch if you cannot lock the scrum. Furthermore, in the inglorious areas of mauling, rucking, fringe defence and line-outs, Hayes' work rate is beyond reproach.
Ask any second-row and they will tell you about the mutual contract of scrummaging support in return for elevation at line-out time. This is not just grunt-work, it requires intelligence (not always the most readily accessible quality in props), movement and adaptability.
Jumpers and hookers garner all the plaudits when it comes to line-out efficiency, but Hayes has been the key component, justifiably forging a reputation as the best lifter in world rugby.
When you take all the above into consideration, arguing that Hayes should not have been in the Ireland squad may seem disingenuous. Declan Kidney's respect and loyalty towards 'The Bull' dates back to bringing him through with Munster in the late 1990s. Hayes has been contracted until after the Word Cup, when he will be nearing his 38th birthday and, given the arduous nature of this November series, it seems that familiarity and experience sealed the selection deal (ditto Shane Horgan's inclusion ahead of Fionn Carr).
However, professional rugby provides little room for sentiment and the reality is that the indispensability tag no longer applies. Tony Buckley is finally fulfilling the promise that has existed since his early socks-rolled-down, 'new John Hayes' days with Shannon and is indisputably Ireland's first-choice tight-head, while Leinster have finally cottoned on to Mike Ross' abilities (although only after the departure of CJ van der Linde and injury to Stan Wright).
Neither is the finished article but, with game time, Buckley's scrummaging and Ross' loose play have both come on hugely, while Tom Court, second only to Ross as the country's foremost scrummager, has become a good option on both sides.
Then you have Jamie Hagan. The Connacht No 3 did not make the squad, but has proven he has the attitude and ability, in loose play and in the tight , worthy of international recognition. Plus, at 23, Hagan can be a force at the World Cup while Hayes is now a target in defence and scrum.
Ireland will take five props to the World Cup and they should be Cian Healy, Buckley, Court, Ross and Hagan. That may appear harsh on the injured Marcus Horan and, particularly, Hayes, given what they have done for Irish rugby.
However, less than 12 months out from a competition where Ireland have consistently failed to produce, it is hard to escape the conclusion that last Tuesday was the time to reel in the years.