John Hayes: Everybody's hero
John Hayes’ career, mirroring his personality, would be a tribute to quiet, determined consistency
Published 24/12/2011 | 05:00
"Have you got a moment?"
Outside the Palace Bar on a balmy September evening, as shocked Dubs and even more stunned Kerry folk mingled in muted reflection upon the pavement, a middle-aged lady approached.
A few months before, she had heard that a neighbour had told legendary Munster prop John Hayes about the plight of a desperately ill Munster fan.
Hayes went away and wrote a letter to that fan. In fact, he wrote several. It was typical of the man -- quietly doing just the right thing, with the smallest amount of fuss and, seemingly, with the minimum of effort.
For sure, he would have preferred if his career had finished without an accompaniment of fanfare.
However, it is precisely because the shadow of this quietest of dark men has been cast so far and wide that the requiem deserves to be so deafening.
On Monday, the Thomond Park choir will have their opportunity to deliver their own eulogy.
Hayes will deal with the commotion with disarming diffidence. After all, this is his third retirement.
He spoke to us after what should really be remembered as his meaningful swansong on a rugby field, the Magners League final last May, when he helped Munster push Leinster's scrum over the line.
"Will you have a chat, Bull?" "Arrah, sure why not?"
Eventually, Declan Kidney persuaded him to remain on for the summer, but, despite private optimism, Hayes would not make an emotional return to New Zealand for the World Cup.
Meanwhile, Munster required short-term cover. Hayes being Hayes, he didn't refuse. The last few months have been possessed of an air of indignity to many observers. Except, of course, Hayes himself. Just happy to help. He loves his job, but it never consumed the farmer and family man.
"He'd rather get on, do his job, get off and get home to the farm and rub his cows," according to Donncha O'Callaghan.
"He's just living it, really, rather than working at it," says Kidney, as reluctant to eulogise as the player himself.
Keith Wood, alongside whom Hayes propped when he made his Irish debut against Scotland in 2000 -- Peter Clohessy was the loose-head -- memorably described the Shannon graduate, by way of Bruff and Invercargill, as being possessed of "the personality of a ninja, if not the stealth."
As Bob Dylan wrote of Rubin Carter in another time and another place, Hayes "never did like to talk about it all that much."
And, just as when he skidaddled from Ireland's Grand Slam celebrations last year to be with his family on the Cappamore farm, "when it's over, just as soon go on my way."
When Eddie O'Sullivan's Irish team were so narrowly denied the Six Nations championship in 2007, many of the Irish team joined supporters in the lobby of their Rome hotel to watch the second-half of France versus Scotland.
The Irish team's recovery session had been delayed as they awaited the outcome; to their horror, an Elvis Vermuelen try in the game's last play denied them the title. Hayes had spotted both the throng and the attendant cameras and had immediately bailed for the lift when the coach dropped them off at the hotel, eager for the solitude of the swimming pool.
O'Callaghan remembers being the first to join him.
"Hayes, France won."
A long pause.
"F*** it, we were close enough."
Hayes would have spurned the thoughts of someone else having to do him a favour. For him, you do your best on your own patch of field and if that wasn't good enough, so be it. It was an attitude that formed his close professional and personal relationship with the sod beneath his feet.
A Grand Slam was all that mattered, so when that particular bountiful harvest arrived, it represented deliverance for so many seasons of toil. Not that it made him any less immune to how he reacted to the vicissitudes of his life and sport.
For him, family now underpinned all those hours spent toiling in the mud-splattered fields of sport and silage. "I wasn't a rugby man," he once revealed some years before.
And so, as the Irish team made an embarrassing exhibition of themselves, Hayes asked Kidney could he be excused.
"Drive on," said one of his most trusted mentors. And so Hayes sped home to see his wife Fiona and the girls, Sally and Roisin, then just two-weeks-old.
When one of the players noticed he was gone, they fired him a text. "Where are you?" "I'm at home on the couch watching ye fools on the telly!"
He was not a rugby man; hurling and football with Doon CBS and then Cappamore represented his sporting upbringing until his occasional interest in the Five Nations on TV prompted him to watch the fêted 1991 World Cup clash between Ireland and Australia on TV.
He went over to Bruff for a look and that was it, initially playing blindside flanker, debuting in a 0-0 draw with Newcastlewest. He was applauded on to the club's next training session.
He might still be a welder and part-time on the father's suckler farm were it not for that peculiar twist of fate which introduced a man earthed in hurling terrain to a rugby field.
Although a belated convert, his steps in the sport were stealthy, even if he first demurred when Niall O'Donovan asked him to join a scrummaging session at Shannon with Mick Galwey just a week after he had scored the Twickenham try that beat the English. Over a decade later, 'Gaillimh' would credit the fork-lifting Hayes' heft with prolonging his career by at least two seasons.
Perhaps the most salient influence on his career arrived on the other side of the world in Invercargill, New Zealand, to where he had travelled with a returning Bruff team-mate, Kynan McGregor.
It was there that the Marist coach 'Doc' Cournane tried the Limerick man at prop; destroyed at loose-head, he tried the other side.
The conversion would be a prophetic one.
His career, mirroring his public persona, would be a tribute to quiet, determined consistency, remarkable unbroken streaks in green and red an indication of his indispensability and, too often, a stick to beat him with when things went wrong.
But few would forget his decisive impacts, such as the tilt in the Munster scrum to allow Peter Stringer to score his decisive try in the breakthrough Heineken Cup win in 2006.
Watch it again and see how the scrum remains locked tight, the slightest shove from Hayes allowing Stringer to gleefully gambol down the blindside to score.
His durability represented how crucial he was to Irish rugby.
O'Callaghan's recent tribute is perhaps most apt.
"He was the kind of player that only his team-mates could fully appreciate. The pundits who were critical of Hayes would never buy a line like that, but you can't fool the people you play with."
Bull was nobody's fool. Just everybody's hero.