Hayes' unlikely journey from country boy to rock of Ireland

Lauded prop never wanted to play rugby
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The Independent Online

"I'll never forget the moment," says John Hayes. "It was after the foot-and-mouth international, just after we'd beaten England, and in walks Jason Leonard to our dressing room with a six-pack of beer under his arm and he's looking for me. He'd just equalled Sean Fitzpatrick's appearance record for a forward and there we were in the corner sipping on the cans. Then he gives me his jersey, his name and the date of the match embroidered on it. An amazing moment."

"I'll never forget the moment," says John Hayes. "It was after the foot-and-mouth international, just after we'd beaten England, and in walks Jason Leonard to our dressing room with a six-pack of beer under his arm and he's looking for me. He'd just equalled Sean Fitzpatrick's appearance record for a forward and there we were in the corner sipping on the cans. Then he gives me his jersey, his name and the date of the match embroidered on it. An amazing moment."

Hayes, who is set to earn his 50th Irish cap against Italy next weekend, still hasn't lost his awe for those rugby moments, the ones with the amateur ethos stamped all over them. They are so different to what he grew up with in Cappamore, Co Limerick. It is hurling country, but at the age of 19, having watched a few Five Nations games on the television, Hayes was cajoled into giving rugby a go at nearby Bruff RFC. He played on the blindside in a 0-0 draw. "To be honest the scoreline hardly meant anything to me," says Hayes. "I wasn't a rugby man."

He played three or four more games for Bruff before moving into the city to play with Shannon Under-20s, where they still remember the first day he came up to training. "He was rugged and inexperienced but he had a bit of football about him. We kept a close eye on him," says the then Shannon coach and current Irish assistant, Niall O'Donovan.

Hayes, who was working as a welder and helping out on the cattle farm at home, was still not looking for a rugby career, though. The seeds of that idea were planted a long way from home. "There was a Kiwi guy who had been living in Bruff and he was heading back home, so I decided to go along with him," says Hayes. "I suppose I had a bit of an itch to go travelling, and going to somewhere like New Zealand made sense because I could play a bit of rugby too. But the intention wasn't to transform myself into a rugby player. I just wanted a bit of a change."

Thankfully for rugby, things didn't go to Hayes's plan. When he arrived, he was a guy who enjoyed a bit of rugby on the side; by the time he left the sport was his main dish. "Their passion for the game really got to me," he remembers. "It was the be-all and end-all. Everybody talked about rugby, the country was immersed in it. The streets would be deserted if the All Blacks were playing. I'd never experienced anything like it."

Welding by day, Hayes played for the Marist club in Invercargill and loved it. He also piled on the weight, eating steaks for breakfast, lunch and supper. In his second season he was pushed forwards to the front-row. "It was the first season that lifting in the line-out became legal, and that changed everything for me. I had piled on the kilos and it was too difficult for the other lads to lift me. When I went back to Shannon, I told them I'd been playing prop and they said they could see why," he laughs.

The next year he earned a part-time contract for Munster and then Warren Gatland called him up for the summer tour to South Africa. "Jesus, that was unbelievable, totally out of the blue," says Hayes. "I'd never considered myself an international player, I'd hardly even played for Munster. I was feeling a bit more comfortable in the front-row but the call-up was unbelievable. It gave me some reassurance that all the hard work I was putting in was worth it."

So the work went on. He applied himself to the art of scrummaging as well as to the physicality surrounding it.He became a Munster regular and then made his Irish debut against Scotland at Lansdowne Road in 2000.

"What a day that was," he recalls. "The week beforehand seemed so long, but the day just flew."

From there, he has collected more memories. Shannon's string of All-Ireland League titles. Munster's forays in Europe. A Triple Crown and victories over England, France, Australia and South Africa. And you can see what it means to him. When the camera pans down the team singing the national anthem, Hayes is the one near tears.

But he does have his critics. Some suggest he is too tall to be a prop, that he can't get down and dirty with the pint-sized looseheads around the globe. Others say he has merely been serving his front-row apprenticeship.

"He's got tremendous ability, and over the years he's got better and better and better," says Leonard. "He's a much better scrummager now. But that's experience for you, and you have to remember that in propping terms, he's still a young fellow."

Around the pitch, Hayes also has his attributes. "That guy extended my top-level career by about two years. He's the best line-out lifter I've ever come across," says the former Ireland lock Mick Galwey, Right now, he is probably Ireland's most indispensable player. Not that you would know it from talking to him, as he takes the art of self-effacement to new levels.

He is looking forward to the Six Nations but won't look beyond that to the Lions. "I've always worked with one thing on my mind at all times and that's not something I'm going to change. To get into the Irish squad, I have to do my stuff with Munster, and even to think about the Lions, I have to do my stuff with Ireland," says the 31-year-old.

Back to that Leonard moment at Lansdowne Road. Did he give the Englishman his Irish shirt in return? "I did. I'd say he was delighted with that one," he laughs. Always a wily old pro, Leonard was probably well aware of its future worth.

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