Saturday 25 November 2017

Reluctant Hero

Ireland's John Hayes, who wins his 100th cap on Saturday Photo: Getty Images
Ireland's John Hayes, who wins his 100th cap on Saturday Photo: Getty Images
David Kelly

David Kelly

As John Hayes folds himself into the chair, all 6ft 4ins and 20 and a half stone of him, it's not just the inadequate furniture that is rendering him squeamishly uncomfortable.

His aversion to supercilious celebrity would have made JD Salinger seem like a veritable Peter Andre in comparison.

"He'd rather get on, do his job, get off and get home to the farm and rub his cows," smiles Donncha O'Callaghan, as giddy as the rest of us at a rare sighting of Irish rugby's first ever 100-capper dodging the flashlights.

Keith Wood, alongside whom Hayes propped on his debut against Scotland in 2000 -- Peter Clohessy was the loose-head -- memorably described the Bruff man as being possessed of "the personality of a ninja, if not the stealth."

As Bob Dylan wrote of Rubin Carter in another time and another place, Hayes "never did like to talk about it all that much."

He works to live, has never lived to work. Bridging the amateur and professional days has aided mind and body; his seminal lessons with Shannon under Niall O'Donovan, then in Invercargill, New Zealand when 'Doc' Cournane tried the second-row as a prop, remain with him to this day.

He might still be a welder and part-time on the father's suckler farm were it not for the twist of fate that brought a man earthed in hurling terrain to a rugby field.

A day of dubious provenance that has heightened the legend, an anonymous blindside berth in an anonymous 0-0 draw over in Bruff; an unlikely starting point for that incredible journey via New Zealand and back to Shannon.

And from there to here.


"I remember that first cap," he offers in a register slightly below that of sotto voce. Shane Horgan, Simon Easterby, Peter Stringer and Ronan O'Gara also debuted on a now storied, red-letter day 10 years ago when Irish international rugby kick-started its unprecedented odyssey of success.

"We've had a special bond ever since. It was an exciting week. You never think 100. When you get one, you want two. I don't know what it is, I was old enough when I started, I suppose."

He hasn't missed a Six Nations game since. He has missed a mere 12 of Ireland's last 112 internationals, mostly due to rest or Lions duty; 96 of them have been starts, the vast majority have lasted the full 80 minutes.

Hayes didn't know rugby existed until he caught a glimpse of the 1991 World Cup on TV.

Twenty years on, and pushing 38, Hayes is hoping to bow out at the 2011 event.

"I suppose it would be nice," he says. Completing the circle, begun by his trip to the South Island with Bruff's then returning Kiwi Kynan McGregor all those years ago.

"I still have a lot of friends there. It's a great country, which really helped me along the way."

So too 'Niallo' at Shannon, 'Gatty' for Ireland, 'Deccy' for Munster. All the while he maintained his equilibrium, cherishing his home life with Fiona and later, daughters Sally and Roisin.

Has his work-life balance reflected the road travelled? "I think so, yeah, I worked for a few years before I turned professional. Since then, even at home, on the farm and stuff, I try to do as much I can. I respect the boundaries, but it's always good to get away. I enjoy it."

For some, the folk image jarred with the harsh professional reality. Yet rarely did flaws prove fatal.

Wood, again memorably, attested that Hayes could run forever, albeit slowly.

His almost superhuman efforts in the line-out are an epic chapter in themselves -- ponder a moment the prospect of hefting 120 kilograms of gangling flesh to something approaching twice your own height, all the while as others scratch and snarl at your shoulders.

His absence is as keenly felt as his presence has been mocked down the years. His height often impedes his scrummaging -- when smaller men can time the hit, it's accordion time. But Stringer's momentous Heineken Cup final try started with a Hayes' tilt; latterly, Ireland's locked scrum on the pip of full-time allowed Brian O'Driscoll the space to squeeze a draw with Australia.

He would be the first to concede, if deep probing were allowed, that his has been a triumph of raw determination over natural talent. "I wasn't a rugby man," he once simply said.

O'Driscoll says all the boys will be behind him on Saturday.

Three years ago, Hayes' tears against England during the emotive Croke Park anthems signposted the history of that day. Might he lead the side out this Saturday?

"I have no idea," says Munster and Ireland team-mate O'Callaghan. "I'm sure Drico will offer, but it's the way Hayes is, he'd have no interest in the fuss of it. The rest of us would be looking forward to it, but not Hayes.

"A fuss for Hayes is probably just talking about it for two seconds. There was no presentation, he just wouldn't put up with it. Sure did you see him in here? You don't get much out of him."

Only everything he's got.

Irish Independent

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