Thursday 21 November 2019

Hayes' steady qualities ensure place at top table

Tom Hayes
Tom Hayes


Now in his eighth year living in England, Tom Hayes is finding that his team-mates get even more mileage out of slagging his accent than when he arrived. Two things present themselves here: first, how a bunch dominated by west country men, who put the y into yokel and the 'arr' into combine harvester, could pollute the mellifluous flow of the east Limerick accent. And second, on the basis that those who suffer greatest are most cherished, Hayes is on a high altar in Exeter.

He is their captain, and has been since moving from Plymouth four years ago. Yesterday against Harlequins he sat out a match for the first time since December 2008. Until this weekend he had played 94 consecutive league games for the club, between Championship -- from where he lead them two summers ago -- and the Premiership. Only Jon Skurr, who coincidentally coaches the Ireland women's Sevens squad, has bettered that figure, with a staggering 199 consecutive games over nine years in four clubs.

It must be something in the Hayes genes, for his brother John was first past the century mark for Ireland. You don't need to dig much deeper to understand why the younger brother commands so much respect across the water.

Saturday in the RDS, and Exeter's first Heineken Cup match, will be a proud moment for him. Tom Hayes left Shannon in search of a career in the game, one that wasn't going to happen in Munster where the Heineken Cup-winning pack was already taking shape. He could have ploughed ahead with quantity surveying, and back then there were jobs to be had in that business.

There was the yearning however to see if he could make a go of the pro game. A fair number of players make the same journey from Ireland in similar circumstances. They climb onto the second rung on the English ladder and hope to hang on. None of them has proved as upwardly mobile as Hayes.

So having survived handsomely in the top flight last season -- eighth place, with home and away wins over Leicester on their list of scalps -- and mid-table so far this term, Exeter look as solid on the field as they are off it. They hope to crack on next summer with developing their fine set-up at Sandy Park into a 20,000-seater stadium. Their progress is reflected in the personality of their captain: steady and determined. Wouldn't he love then to be leading the team out in Thomond Park on Saturday rather than Lansdowne Road?

"Yeah, but how do you say you're disappointed missing out on Munster when you get Leinster instead?" he asks. "I think they can pretty much claim the title of being the best Heineken Cup squad really at this stage -- three titles in four years is hard to argue with. These are the kind of challenges we've just got excited about over the last few years. The club wanted to be in the Premiership and playing the European rugby that comes with that for many years. If you want to play there you have to measure yourself against the big boys. And the Leinster game is the first one of them.

"I thought Leinster and Clermont was the game of the tournament last season, so having the two of them in our group pretty much spelled out the challenge for us now. And the Scarlets as well -- they have a big Heineken Cup history and we have absolutely none. So we're going to have our work cut out for us. We'll give as good an account of ourselves as we can and see where it takes us."

History suggests that won't be too far, for debutants in Europe tend to spend the first season suffering and learning. Yet they have already made some difficult house calls in the neighbouring parish of the Amlin Cup, over the last two seasons, and come away with respect -- losing by an aggregate of five points to Perpignan and Montpellier, and emptying Bourgoin 34-19.

They have a simple enough policy that nearly every game is still open for business, be it a bonus point if not a win, unless it disappears altogether from view. And they enjoy the pursuit.

"As a team -- and our supporters as well -- we're still excited about being in the Premiership and still learning as well," Hayes says. "Just playing at this level means an awful

lot to the fellas who are there. Like, I played five years in the Championship and there's other fellas played a lot more of it. We're enjoying it, and the fact that some games go against us isn't going to knock our enjoyment of that.

"We know this is where want to be. It's not as if we're going to turn around and say: 'Jesus, we'd rather be somewhere else!' While we feel we deserve to be in the Premiership we still feel lucky and privileged to be here. Where we are we as a team at the minute we certainly couldn't afford to be taking our eyes off that (the Premiership) but there'll be a big build-up to it now next week. We enjoyed playing in the Amlin Cup over the last couple of years. Obviously, the Heineken is another step up but we're looking forward to it."

Hayes is 32 now. Past the point of hoping he might get a higher calling -- he would have considered such an approach from England if it ever came -- but still with the guts of two seasons to go with Exeter, and a legacy to be left there. Given his stickability, he might crack on a bit further than that, entertaining the yokels with an accent that hasn't deviated much since the day he left Co Limerick. Maybe they're a bit slow to catch on.

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