Monday 20 November 2017

Big Brother watching over Hayes' brilliant journey to top table

Tom Hayes leads his Exeter Chiefs into battle against Leinster at the RDS today - a long way from his early days with Munster

David Kelly

David Kelly

Tom Hayes emits a guttural guffaw.

Big brother isn't watching him. Instead, everyone is watching big brother.

Just as he embarks upon the latest remarkable stage of his own personal and professional odyssey with a Heineken Cup debut, as captain, at the home of the champions, 32-year-old Hayes discovers that his elder sibling has traded the habit of a lifetime and hogged the spotlight.

John Hayes, the Greta Garbo of Irish rugby, has suddenly morphed into Lady Gaga territory.

"He was living a lie all these years," laughs Tom, as his sibling decamps to every broadcasting studio bar Oprah Winfrey's this past fortnight to promote his new autobiography, 'The Bull: My Story'.

"He was only having everyone on."

The irony is heightened when Tom wondered if John might deign to pitch up at the RDS today, when he leads out an unheralded Exeter Chiefs outfit on their maiden Heineken Cup voyage.

No chance.

"Ah, he's at some book signing in Galway or some place," he says. It's Ennis actually (3.0 in Abbey St, the brother presses).

There'll be one eye on the telly in the corner, though. John knows just how much this afternoon will mean to Tom as he ventures upon his first outing in Europe's top tier; John finished his stellar career with 101 European appearances.

"As a big brother, you look out for him but when you're growing up you'd beat the lard out of them!" says John.

"I'd watch Tom's games at underage and you'd try to help him a little bit. Sometimes you have to let them stand on their own two feet. You can't be nit-picking all the time, you need to trust the coaches they have."

Both boys had to leave to find themselves; only one came back.

While John's wanderlust took him to Invercargill as a 21-year-old -- he confesses that he may have stayed had it not been for visa issues -- he eventually became the rock of Munster and Ireland's scrum.

Another brother, Mike, played a year as a pro with Connacht but his propping career was stymied by a cracked bone in his neck.

Tom packed down behind John on occasion but, as he reached his mid-20s and with a host of other living legends blocking his route to a back-five slot, he needed to make a decision not only on his future in the game, but his future in life.

"I'd come to the end of the road in terms of professional rugby in Ireland," he recalls. "There was nothing going for me. I had a job lined up but I got a phone call to see if I'd be interested in playing in England.

"I would have been playing at a decent level at home so I didn't want to play any old rugby. Then when the economy crashed, the job was no longer feasible but it coincided with the move from Plymouth to Exeter.

"Everybody could see this was a progressive club so I jumped at the chance to join them. It was very professional even five or so years back when I started with them. The club was on the rise and I was more than happy to jump on board and play a part in it all."

He hasn't taken a backward glance since. As a teenager, he recalls watching Munster's Heineken Cup debut against Swansea, when Pat Murray added to Richie Wallace's earlier score to nab a thrilling late victory.

The sleepy Devon club he joined in 2008 resembled that Munster of early professionalism in many ways; under the guidance of a self-made millionaire, Tony Rowe, who left school at 15 to join the marines, the club were possessed of grand ambition.

Double

Rowe sold the club's old County Ground in the 1990s and developed Sandy Park on the M5; the 10,000 capacity now contributes £750,000 to their playing budget outside of match days. Plans are afoot to double the capacity.

Coach Rob Baxter, whose brother Richard still plays for the club, is of farming stock, like Hayes himself; the club spurn prima donnas.

Imagine Doncaster Rovers qualifying for the Champions League; this is the magnitude of Exeter Chiefs' remarkable achievement. Now they intend to stay there.

He can still recall his first start, against Otley in September 2008. "There were less than 200 people there that day," he smiles.

He'll bring half that number to the RDS himself today.

"It's been a brilliant journey and everyone who's travelled the long road with them has enjoyed it.

"We're able to stand on our own two feet and there's certainly a solid footing. Even Rob Baxter said when we got to the Premiership, it wasn't a case of waking up and thinking it was a fairytale.

"It was a long-term ambition for us to be here. It's easier said than done but we've shown we can adapt."

That is why Dean Mumm, a 33-time capped Wallaby, has pitched up in Devon; his arrival may have cost Hayes his chance of 50 Premiership games in a row last season but he sees the bigger picture.

Oh, and they destroyed Harlequins last week, as it happened.

"We wanted to be in the Premiership all along," says Hayes. "There's no point in being afraid. It's not just giving it a lash, we need to believe in what we're doing. We didn't want to go out trying not to lose, we wanted to go for it and not just contain teams.

"We try to be positive. That's a similar message we're bringing to this weekend. It's another step up and we couldn't have had a harder introduction to it. Hopefully Leinster will have to do a little bit of focus on us as well."

Eoin Reddan this week spoke glowingly of his erstwhile Munster and Ireland U-21 team-mate, musing how much of a loss he may have been to the national team.

Hayes would have played for England as his pack colleague, Tom Johnson, did last summer, had they asked. But they didn't and now he'll just worry about battling with Mumm for a regular starting berth.

"He's not a multi-capped Wallaby for any reason. It just shows where the club is going to, being able to sign these fellahs. We have got to the stage with the Heineken Cup where you need to rotate players a little more. Fellahs need to be fresh to retain the intensity."

Ascension

That all around him have kept their heads despite such a dizzying ascension is a testament to this remarkably homely club's character; Hayes is a similar study in microcosm.

"John has always been very level-headed which helped me," he explains. "Even in the book, it's always just good stuff he's said to me. He never got down about the bad losses, the ones that hurt so much.

"Rob has said that to us as well, especially after we missed out on the top four last season. You're never carried away with yourself with a win or thinking the world is falling apart if you lose."

That would be the Hayes boys. Feet on the ground, spirits always soaring.

'The Bull: My Story' is published by Simon & Schuster. John Hayes will be signing copies in Ennis bookshop, Abbey Street at 3.0 today.

Irish Independent

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