Tuesday 23 January 2018

Brendan Fanning: Fanfare for an uncommon man

John Hayes' longevity shows how important he has been for Munster and Ireland, says Brendan Fanning

John Hayes
John Hayes

"I saw Hayes as I was running back and he gave me the outstretched hand, and I'd say that's the first time ever he's done that in his career. It caught me for five seconds.

I was emotionless before that, but it gave me a few shivers because it was always Gaillimh. It was a poignant moment for me, I felt. It put me off slightly for a second. I hadn't felt any pressure taking that kick -- I dunno if it was just confidence that I was going to get it. It was a bloody important kick but I don't think I appreciated it at the time because I didn't believe the clock. Hayes was wrecked. He doesn't do any fancy shit. That's not John Hayes. I was kinda going: 'fuck it, that's cool!'"

Ronan O'Gara's recollection of the final penalty kick, the strike that pushed them four points clear of Biarritz in the 2006 Heineken Cup final, described how momentarily John Hayes had discreetly slipped into a role once occupied by Mick Galwey. In Munster and Ireland games, the second row would line up behind his outhalf and give him a roar of approval every time he nailed a big kick. O'Gara had come to miss it when Galwey retired. In his own way, without a word, Hayes saw a gap that needed filling, and filled it. "It was an instinctive thing," he said.

On St Stephen's night in Thomond Park, John Hayes will be called ashore for the last time. The choreography demands it happens when play is at the furthest point from the bench, so that the crowd can get maximum value from the last home run. It will be worth the trip for that moment alone. And Hayes will probably hate every second of it.

When the Ireland team were being feted at a homecoming in Dublin after winning the Grand Slam two years ago, their tighthead had slipped off unnoticed and was watching it at home on television. He enjoyed that: laughing at his team-mates in various states of disrepair, and having none of the limelight shining on him. A result.

"If he could slip out under the cover of darkness, I'd say he would," says his brother Tom, whose flourishing career at Exeter will keep the Hayes name in lights. "Knowing (Anthony) Foley though he'll get Tony McGahan to wait until a set-piece is on the far side of the field. He made his peace with it (retiring) at the end of last season and I think in his head he's ready. He'll have plenty to occupy him at home."

Hayes' career with Munster started in the summer of 1997 on a two-game trip to Scotland, and a year later he was making his first Ireland tour, to South Africa. His Test debut followed in 2000, and to get a handle on his importance to the national side, look at his stats: of his 105 international matches, 99 were starts. Having Hayes fit was a much bigger deal than getting Brian O'Driscoll on the field.

It was the build-up to the 2003 World Cup when his place in Eddie O'Sullivan's plans was best illustrated. A torn calf put him in serious trouble, and for the last two weeks before departure he moved to the Grand Hotel in Malahide for twice daily sessions with the physio, who worked him incredibly hard between punishing gym sessions and cycling half way round the north county. Had it been twice that length of time, and in the Ritz in Paris, then O'Sullivan would have cheerfully agreed for he wasn't going to Australia without his tighthead.

Sure enough he was worth the trip, but if there is a gap on his World Cup cv then it's not having come home really satisfied from the one that matters most. In France in 2007, he was in good shape, but it counted for nothing. He kept sane by having his family out there for respite from the awfulness of the Ireland camp. At 38 last month, this year's tournament just came too late for him.

The highs with Munster have been spectacular though. Hayes was ever-present through the sequence of semis and finals from losing to Northampton in 2000 to being a second-time winner in 2008. The breakthrough in 2006 was the best week of his life: beating Biarritz and seeing his daughter Sally born safe and well.

Throughout his career his scrummaging has been a focus of much attention. The bad days have got more airplay -- starting with being taken off after 29 minutes in the European Cup against Perpignan in 1998, when he was still a raw student of his trade -- but one of the best was his performance against the massively hyped Andrew Sheridan in Munster's demolition of Sale in 2006. His description of a bad day at the coalface owes something to Donald Rumsfeld.

"You know you can do it like (scrummage well). And then when you don't it'll annoy you. Fuck it like, it's not like you can't do it. If there's something that you know you can't do then it's a fucking problem but otherwise when you know you can do it -- and you still didn't get it done -- then it's annoying. Why the fuck did that happen like?"

Why indeed. From Tuesday morning the only wrestling Hayes will be doing will be with livestock on the farm. Coping with retirement is a serious issue for rugby players, having to deal with the loss of their identity overnight.

Between family and farm, and having zero interest in his public profile, John Hayes won't struggle on this front.

Leaving the dressing room behind will be harder though. In an incredible career, Hayes has won the respect and affection of a horde of team-mates, and closing that link takes time. His current colleagues, and a full house in Thomond Park on Monday night, will get their chance to make it a special farewell.

And Ronan O'Gara can repay the compliment.

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