Munster bid farewell to hero Hayes
They were calling it St Bull's Day around these parts. A festive fixture with a valedictory twist as one of the country's most celebrated heroes bade farewell.
Typically, the man at the centre of attention was the only man in Thomond Park who would have preferred not to have been the centre of attention.
As John Hayes turned right down the tunnel before kick-off, he suddenly found himself isolated. Turning around several times to see no red shirt in his trail, he gulped and took in the night air of Thomond Park's acclamation for one last time. This time, the lusty roars were all for him and him alone.
A banner proclaiming the fact that 'there is only one bull' confirmed the fact. He jogged on to the turf, still scanning over his shoulder to await a team-mate to deflect the attention.
Simon Zebo, born in 1990 when Hayes was a teenager, still a GAA stalwart and gleefully ignorant of the oval game, was the first to clap on the shoulder to terminate the ovation. Munster's tradition of succession could not have been more vividly illustrated.
Then he resumed his berth at Pillar One beside the edge of the first ruck. Just another game. Except that it couldn't be just another game. Not for him anyway. He knocked on his first pass.
As he had shown before in Croke Park before Ireland played England on that famous 2007 day, even granite stones such as Hayes emit emotion.
When Ian Keatley was offered his first attempt at goal, the crowd exhorted captain Mick O'Driscoll to "give it to the Bull!" When Keatley missed, the shouts grew louder.
When he missed again... let's just say the out-half was a relieved man when he finally nailed his third effort between the sticks. So strange to think that it was almost 14 and a half years since Hayes first pulled on the red jersey of Munster in the affluent Golden Acre area of Edinburgh on a pre-season tour.
The seeds of a stellar career were sowed there and then. And last night he disrobed the mythical red jumper for the 217th and final time, ending a journey that virtually shadowed the development of the professional game in this country.
Hayes had only earned the one Munster cap in that inaugural season -- thanks to the presence of a certain Peter Clohessy -- but by 1998 he had begun his heroic Heineken Cup journey with the province against Padova in Musgrave Park.
There too, in the premier club competition in the world, Hayes' progress would complement his side's uncertain early progress in Europe, to the point where they had become the people's uncrowned champions, before they finally -- twice -- consummated their desire to reach the holy grail.
His durability has been well-documented but demands accountancy for one final time as he departs the scene.
He played in all four of Munster's Heineken Cup finals, culminating in those 2006 and 2008 triumphs.
From his debut in 2000 against Scotland, not uncoincidentally recognised as a red letter in the history of Irish rugby, his indispensability to the international side was matched only by his irrepressible long-time captain, Brian O'Driscoll.
He played in 10 successive Six Nations campaigns, numbering an impressive 55 consecutive matches in the tournament up until last season's competition, featuring the undoubted highlight of the 2009 Grand Slam campaign.
"Obviously there's a feeling of sadness that it's coming to an end after a very long run but there's the realisation that the time has come," said 38-year-old Hayes on the eve of his final professional engagement.
"I'm very glad that the last game will be in Thomond Park. I never thought I'd have this length of career. There were many highlights and with Munster it would have to be the two Heineken Cups and for Ireland the Grand Slam game in Cardiff in 2009."
Last night's game was not one of them, in spite of the grand entrance and exit.
Munster were rarely extended in submitting the hapless westerners to an 11th successive defeat. When out-half Keatley had eventually found his range in the 16th minute, he swiftly added another before opposite number Niall O'Connor halved the margin in the 27th minute.
Eight minutes later, their race had been run. Their opening try on the half-hour mark was a product of the impressive youth now finding its feet in Munster as the older generation, headed by Hayes, slowly exit the stage.
Young full-back Sean Scanlon secured the debut try but sundry others aided the effort, from young Paddy Butler's athletic groundhog steal to the impressive support work of young wingers Simon Zebo and Luke O'Dea, the latter providing the scoring pass after a deliciously quick transfer from Keith Earls.
The conversion was an easy one and five minutes later Munster pushed further ahead. A bizarre over-throw from Ethienne Reynecke on halfway was seized upon by Tomas O'Leary, still desperately scratching his way back to some semblance of form.
The scrum-half hacked ahead; it seemed to all, too ambitiously. Even more bizarrely, though, Fetu'u Vainokolo pirouetted like your gran after one too many sherrys and O'Leary beat him to the punch.
Keatley couldn't convert. To make matters worse, neither could O'Connor after Marcus Horan's idiotic push on Johnny O'Connor, dragging his effort well wide to sum up a miserable opening berth for his side.
O'Connor's improved place-kicking ensured there was relative interest in the game as a competitive contest, albeit most punters were for once more interested in a substitution, than a result.
Cometh the 59th minute, departeth the man. As a lineout gathered at the far side of the field, Hayes was afforded the longest walk back to the sideline.
You wouldn't have blamed him for wanting to grab a clutch of sod. But then the memories will suffice. Anyway, as the banner proudly proclaimed, 'tis his field.
Munster -- S Scanlon; L O'Dea, K Earls, D Barnes, S Zebo (S Deasy 76); I Keatley (T Gleeson 76), T O'Leary (D Williams 64); M Horan (D Kilcoyne 69), D Fogarty (S Henry 75), J Hayes (, BJ Botha 59), D O'Callaghan, M O'Driscoll capt (I Nagle 75), B Holland, N Ronan, P Butler (J Coughlan 63).
Connacht -- G Duffy (capt); F Vainikolo, E Griffin, D McSharry (K Tonetti h-t), T O'Halloran; N O'Connor (M Jarvis 65), F Murphy (P O'Donohoe 58); B Wilkinson, E Reynecke (A Flavin 66), R Loughney (R Ah You 65), G Naoupu, M McCarthy, D Gannon (M Kearney 53 (E McKeon 76)), J O'Connor, J Muldoon.
Ref -- D Philips (IRFU).