BYRON HAYWARD was just two minutes away from turning his back on rugby permanently to concentrate on a blossoming boxing career. Instead he has been called into the Welsh squad, announced yesterday by the new coach Graham Henry, for November's international against South Africa.
The Ebbw Vale No 10 was just about the only plus factor in Wales's otherwise hideous rugby experience during the summer tour to Zimbabwe and South Africa.
He was only invited to join the tour after a series of crucial player withdrawals resulted in a much-weakened team being selected. But, seizing his chance, Hayward scored a hat-trick of tries against Zimbabwe on his international debut before crashing down to earth in Pretoria, when South Africa amassed 96 points against Wales's meagre 13.
Despite playing for a team that failed to win any of its five games on tour in South Africa, Hayward's passion and never-say-die attitude impressed Henry sufficiently to play him in two trial matches in the last week and then to select him ahead of Arwel Thomas in the full-strength squad.
"All I ever wanted was to be given a chance," the 29-year-old Hayward says. "When I finally got it in Zimbabwe and South Africa, I'd like to think I took it. It's taken a long time, and I've reached this point in an unusual way, but now I am here, I intend to stay."
Hayward's "unusual way" was inside the various gyms and boxing halls of Wales. In his early and mid-20s he juggled being a boxer with rugby- playing commitments to first Newbridge, and then Newport. His rugby was good, but his boxing seemed better.
As an amateur light-middleweight he fought 21 times and lost just twice. It was enough to persuade the boxing promoter, Mickey Duff, then riding high in British boxing, to take him on as a professional. Hayward was to sign the official contract with Duff in a week's time when he received a telephone call from Newport Rugby Club.
"I'd grown a bit disillusioned with rugby, and had decided boxing would be my career. A lot of people thought I could go a long way. The week before I was due to sign Newport asked me if I could play one game for them. They were struggling to put a first team together due to illness and injury, so I agreed to help them out. For old times' sake."
It was nothing more than a low key friendly between Newport and Cross Keys, but it proved to be a crucial turning-point in Byron Hayward's life. "There were only two minutes remaining of the game when I injured a vertebrae in my neck," he recalls. "I knew instantly my chance in boxing had gone. I was out for six months and I never got the chance in boxing again."
Understandably, Hayward took all this pretty badly. "I was gutted by it, of course," he admits. "I wanted to get to the top. I used to train with Joe Calzaghe and I've seen how he has gone on to become world champion. That could have been me."
By the time he had fully recovered from his potentially career-ending injury, rugby had moved on, and so, too, had Hayward. "We all knew that the game was about to turn professional. The following season it did, and that's when I decided to make a full commitment to rugby."
The trip to South Africa provided the man with a rollercoaster of emotions. "I was on an unbelievable high after scoring three tries on my debut against Zimbabwe," he says. "As a boy, like every other Welsh boy, I dreamed of playing for my country. Now I had, and scored a hat-trick as well. I'd finally claimed my red jersey.
"But after the South Africa defeat, there were a lot of tears in the dressing-room. It's the worst atmosphere I've ever experienced. We had a weakened team, don't forget, in the first place, and we then lost eight first-choice players during the tour, so it really was boys against men stuff.
"It's the kind of experience that could, if you allowed it to, destroy you. If I'm honest it affected me quite badly for a couple of weeks afterwards back home in Wales. It really got to me. Then I decided to use the experience.
"Some people in Wales are telling us all to forget about it, that it was a one-off, we were a depleted side, and it's now history. I disagree. I don't think any of us should ever forget about it. I'm certainly not going to.
"Everyday now I train that much harder, adding an extra 15 minutes on as a reminder of how much better I need to be to match the South Africans. I would give everything to be able to play against them when South Africa meet us at Wembley in November."
It seems, at least judging by the plaudits he has received since his return from South Africa, that Hayward has a good chance of realising this ambition. Henry, the former Auckland Blues coach, has made it known that he wants to see real fighting passion and commitment from the Welsh, ingredients that Hayward seems to possess in abundance.
"Just look at the Tri-Nations," Hayward argues. "From No 1 to 15 all you see is 100 per cent commitment for 80 minutes each game. That's what we need to produce in Wales. In the Southern Hemisphere they seem to play at that level week in, week out. I'm lucky to play in such a game once every six months. Still, we've reached rock bottom now, so there's only one way to go, and in Graham Henry we clearly have a man who knows all about success."
Yet, although Hayward's name may well still be relatively new to rugby followers, his sudden rise in fortunes has not come as a great surprise to the man himself. "I had a good tour, but I didn't think it was anything special. It's nothing more than what I've been doing at Ebbw Vale for the past three seasons.
"I think the problem was that, because I played for a once unfashionable club called Ebbw Vale, people saw me as a good, club player. Since Vale reached the Welsh Cup final last season, and have a higher profile, people are suddenly aware of us."
Despite playing at full-back during the summer, stand-off is Hayward's position, and that is where he wants to play. "I'd play prop for Wales if I was asked to, but my best position is stand off, without a doubt," he says.
"I don't think any player has made the No 10 jersey his own throughout the 1990s, so I'd like to think I've got a chance now to make it mine."
And if he does, will it exorcise the frustration of his boxing career? "Oh no," Hayward replies, with a rueful smile. "I'll be pleased, but I'll always regret never turning pro as a boxer. You see, rugby's about 14 other men as well. That's OK, but in boxing it's all down to you."
He's obviously his own man, is Byron Hayward.Reuse content