Sunday 18 February 2018

Buckley must deliver to keep the Bull at bay, insists Kidney

David Kelly

David Kelly

John Hayes woke up yesterday morning and pulled back the curtains in his Killiney hotel room to begin his 38th year.

Unlike any of the previous 10, however, it was destined to begin with him on the outside of the Irish squad looking in.

Indeed, today he won't even get the opportunity to shoehorn himself and good friend and neighbour Tony Buckley into an impossibly unsuitable car and whizz down to Limerick to see their families on their day off.

For the first time in this millennium since making his 2000 debut against Scotland, Hayes has been dropped entirely from the Irish squad for a home Test. The return to the Aviva Stadium, facing the world champions, renders the event a significant milestone.

Buckley, however belatedly, is the up-and-coming man on the tight side of the front row.

"I think anytime a guy gets a break like he got on the summer tour, it's very important," said Declan Kidney, who has watched, often with concealed frustration, as the former Newbridge College pupil has struggled to translate raw talent into enduring quality.

"He took the chance very well and backed it up with a few good performances. But it's important to also say that John, unfortunately, fell ill at the start of tour and didn't get his energy back in time, so he didn't get the opportunities."

Within Kidney's characteristic defence of the disappointed player losing out is the cautionary note to the replacement.

"Any time you're starting to get opportunities, it's important to take them, not so much this season but to measure the progress of your whole career. He has now played against Australia and New Zealand, he'll now start against South Africa.

"As a player, you always want to pit yourself against the best. That's what he'll do on Saturday and hopefully he'll take his opportunity."

Sadly, Hayes' mortality as a top-ranked sportsman is inevitable and, while a solution to Ireland's tight-head problem seemed perennially impossible to find, it now appears it may have been right in front of our eyes all along.

Not all witnesses have been so adamant.

"The fact that he may get selected for Ireland doesn't mean he's a quality international player," Munster forwards coach Laurie Fisher has noted in the past. "He can become one but time is of the essence. He has tremendous potential but when you hit your late 20s it stops being potential."

Now beyond 30, a prime age for a prop, the influence of Ireland's forwards coach, Gert Smal, has been pivotal. "I think he can take over from John," is Smal's opinion.

"He's been the second prop behind him all the time but I think he is at the stage now where I think he can start kicking on.

"I was quite worried about the prop situation but after this year I think we've got something, not just in him but also a little bit more depth in other players also.

"In terms of making it as a player, I have a lot of confidence in him. I think he can be one of the best tight-heads in the world."

Buckley was doing some extra work with Smal and his fellow front-rowers yesterday and it is unsure whether he will take the risk of travelling to Limerick and back before the squad reconvene tomorrow morning.

Yet such is the camaraderie within the squad, and such is the selflessness of Hayes, it is likely that the duo will share notes. The Hayes and Buckley families are neighbours, the wives are good friends, too.

"Yeah, he's pretty helpful but we don't talk too much about rugby," Buckley has said before. "We go shooting and stuff together, just to chill out, nothing too hectic."

He won't expect the Bull to be put out to international pasture just yet. Neither does Kidney.

"Definitely not," he insisted. This is Buckley's time though. Now to make it count.

Irish Independent

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