'You were too f*****g lazy to get your big arse off the floor' - Alan Quinlan reflects with John 'Bull' Hayes
Mid-afternoon in Cappamore, and the man standing in front of me flashes a cheeky grin. "Oh Lord," he says, in mock outrage. "What have I done to deserve this?"
A couple of months have passed since we last met and whereas once we were inseparable, either heading out on the town after a big match on a Saturday, or sharing car journeys down and back to Cork for training, in the five-and-a-half years since I retired, the get-togethers have become less frequent.
Still, like all the Munster players from those two Heineken Cup-winning teams, there's always the knowledge that even if weeks or months pass between catch-ups, we'll pick things up from where we left off. "Five years retired and no one has seen you since," I say.
"And that's the way I like it," he replies.
Of all the players I ever played with, John Hayes is the one person people often ask about. "What's he really like?" they say. "Refined and quiet?"
Publicly he was. Like the day Ireland came home with the Grand Slam, The Bull asked for permission to opt out of the homecoming parade, and as soon as it was given, he slipped into his car and headed back to Cappamore.
Even here, five years on from the end of a great career, there is no shrine in his home to what he achieved: the 105 Ireland caps, two Lions tours, two Heineken Cups, four Triple Crowns and the 2009 Grand Slam.
Publicly people have this image of a shy person away from the field and a hard worker on it. The hard work bit is certainly true. But when I think about the man I have known since 1993 (he introduced himself by stamping on my leg as I lay on the wrong side of a ruck playing a Munster Junior Cup match for Clanwilliam against Bruff), the first word I think of is 'messer'.
If something went wrong in your career - and let's be frank here, plenty went wrong in mine - you would certainly get a sympathetic arm-around-the-shoulder from The Bull, but his style of therapy was to also playfully make light of your troubles, because if there was one thing he loved, it was when the slagging and banter would kick off in the dressing room.
And he could take it as well as give it.
I'd recall the day he got his pilot's licence in one of his first European games for Munster - when this brute of a Perpignan loosehead sent him so far into the sky that we thought he might get altitude sickness.
Or the time when he scored that famous try against Toulouse in the 2000 Heineken Cup semi-final, a brilliant score, disguised by the fact that John stayed on the ground for about 20 seconds after being tackled in an early phase of that attack, before inadvertently finding himself at the right place at the right time, to cross the line.
"Twenty seconds. You sure?" he said.
Alan Quinlan: "Let's remember this clearly. Dominic Crotty made a line break, gets tackled and pops the pass to you. You fall over the line and the only reason you were there was because you were too f*****g lazy to get your big arse off the floor."
John Hayes: "Go away you. If an openside had got that score, they'd say he showed great anticipation. I wasn't lying there resting, I was watching how the play would unfold."
AQ: "Watching? It was just a coincidence you got back up and found yourself in the right place at the right time."
JH: "Hold on a minute, you weren't even playing. You were on the bench. … where you spent most of your shaggin' career. The only time I ever saw you move fast was just before the 1999 World Cup when we were down on some team-building weekend in Mayo. We were climbing over these wooden frames, each of us doing our bit, and you, being the eejit you are, complained about a sore calf. Next thing, the phone rings. Donal Lenihan (then the Ireland team manager) is onto Deccie (Kidney) saying that David Corkery has gone down injured and they wanted you to come in as a replacement. And what did you do? You sprinted - literally sprinted - to the car. Not a goodbye, a good luck, nor nothing. Off you went, like Usain Bolt. Injured on a Tuesday, you played that Friday, the most miraculous medical recovery I am ever likely to witness."
* * * * * *
And this was how all our conversations used to unfold.
There'd be devilment off the field and hard work on it. Hayes was the most honest, dedicated, industrious professional you could wish to meet. And before every game, I always used to have this ritual where I'd scan my eyes around the dressing room and look at the players who were about to go to war with me.
And that was the bit I loved most about my career because when you'd catch the eye of a guy like Hayes, you knew you were going to be okay that day.
Looking back on it, it's hardly a surprise we became such close friends. He was from Cappamore, I was from Limerick Junction. Neither of us went to a rugby-playing school - John, in fact, didn't start playing the game until he was 18 and initially as a second-row.
Only a spell in Invercargill in New Zealand convinced him to make the switch to prop.
Yet even after he came back home, he was still dovetailing between the two positions - playing second-row for Shannon a year after making his debut for Munster as a prop. And it all seemed to happen so fast, this progression from club rugby, where he featured as a lock as late as 1998, to the international team, where he became Ireland's starting tighthead against Scotland in February 2000.
"I was nervous that day," he says. "In fact I'd always be wary when I was coming up against someone I'd never faced before. But I always felt I was good enough. You're slagging me about getting drilled. And it did happen. By God, there were days when I knew I was in a contest. But I was never once physically frightened from the very first day I played. Nor did I doubt that I'd be incapable of learning about the game. I knew I'd always get there. I might have been 22 when I started propping. But I was never afraid."
In a parallel universe, he'd have loved to have been around today, starting out on his international journey under Joe Schmidt's tutelage, because even though, by the end of our careers, we used to joke that the game had turned into one long series of meetings about meetings, deep down, he had a thirst of knowledge.
"I'd have liked working under him (Schmidt) - no doubt," he says. "When you were young, you wanted to soak up all the information that you could. Joe Schmidt knows what he wants. He looks at the team he has at his disposal and figures out a way to beat the opposition - any team in the world, even New Zealand. He's a great coach for Ireland to have."
No one doubts that. But for some, Schmidt's assertion that Craig Gilroy's hat-trick performance against Italy was 'a mixed bag' seemed a little harsh. With The Bull, though, that was the kind of view he'd often take after a big win. "You had to," he says. "Even after winning, you knew you could improve. That's one of the things I really like about Schmidt."
So he's positive about the rest of this Six Nations campaign, about France next weekend, then the Welsh away, even England - with their 16-game winning streak.
"Ireland can beat France, no doubt," Hayes adds. "The first 60 minutes will be tight - they're fitter and better than they were a couple of years ago - but we can definitely get one over them. England will probably arrive into Dublin undefeated on March 18 and it'll probably be a winner-takes-all-day when they do get here. But sure, that's the type of scenario you want, isn't it?"
Certainly this was the scenario he encountered 10 years ago.
Hard to believe now a decade has passed since that seismic day - when Croke Park opened its doors to soccer and rugby and Vincent Clerc nicked a result for France with a last-minute try just a few weeks before England came to Jones' Road. That was the day we saw another side to John Hayes. The anthem played and the tears flowed.
"You cried like a big baby," I say.
"Well, it was like this," Bull replies. "The whole thing had been talked about for a year. Some GAA people wanted it. Some didn't. And now that it was going to happen, you felt - not a pressure because that's the wrong word - but a responsibility to the GAA people who had allowed us play there.
"It was such a big thing for them to do that and you just wanted to make it a success for those people. The whole build-up had been about the anthems and whether 'God Save the Queen' would be respected or not. And then when they played the English anthem, there was silence.
"Then it was ours and I've never heard noise like it. The whole week, from the previous match - every radio station, newspaper - everybody was just talking about it. There had never been a game with so much significance - not just for rugby fans but for GAA people, too. It was one we had to win."
And they did.
Other big victories would come too. Days with Munster were special. Days representing Ireland are ones he'll never forget. Those 105 caps were hard-won - although when he looks at the progress Tadhg Furlong is making now, he freely admits there'd be a contest to get anywhere near as many, had their eras overlapped.
"He would have had to earn them but I've no doubt he would have done so," Hayes says. "Put it this way, he is a better player than I was. If he keeps progressing, he'll play for the Lions. Everything about Tadhg - his ability, his personality - I like."
And that was the thing about Hayes.
No more than myself, he was never bothered about where a player was from, so long as he knew they'd give everything for the team. Those who had issues about provincial rivalries, well those guys sank without trace. If you had a chip on your shoulder about somebody else, you just weren't going to do well in the Irish environment.
But John did. He generated a massive respect from his team-mates - whether that was with club, province, country or the Lions. "Sure look," he says, "that's the way it is in rugby, where you can be an opponent one day and a team-mate the next. Go back to the club days, before we were called up for Munster. In the build-up to matches between Shannon and Cork Con, or Shannon or Garryowen, we'd have been saying, 'F**k those fellas'."
"You'd try to kill Wally (David Wallace) on a Saturday afternoon and be best buddies with him on a Saturday night. Those club rivalries had to be put away for Munster to work. And the same principle applied when we played for Ireland. There was never a case of them and us. We were all in it together. And the same challenge applies this year with the Lions. You are going to have to get players from four countries to come together.
"Admittedly, whenever I went anywhere for the first time - with Munster, Ireland or on the two Lions tours - I'd have been a bit defensive. I'd have said to myself, 'I don't know about that fella. I'll let him speak to me first'. But the thing that always made me warm to someone was hard work on a training field. If someone bust me with a tackle, I'd always think, 'Jeez, he's tough. He's the kind of fella I want on my team'."
The kind of fella John Hayes is.