Hayman offers launch pad for new Falcons

The world's best prop has taken on a formidable task in helping remould Newcastle after a period of rapid player turnover, but the call of home – both the family farm and the All Black jersey – is also a powerful one, he tells Simon Turnbull
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Following in Carl Hayman's considerable wake, out towards the seating area in the West Stand at Kingston Park, something catches the eye in a cubby hole of a side room. It's a newspaper holding up a wonky chair – a copy of The Independent, no less. The second best prop in the world, perhaps?

The widely acknowledged best is getting ready for afternoon training out on the field where he gave Andrew Sheridan something of a shove-around in Newcastle Falcons' opening home match of the season. That takes some doing. At 6ft 5in and 18st 10lb, the Sale and England loose head (sadly, now out of commission because of a shoulder dislocation) is something of an outhouse. But then Hayman is some unit himself: 6ft 4in, 18st 12lb of solid New Zealand rock, unaccustomed to being shifted.

When he arrived on Tyneside on a reputed £250,000-a-year contract, in the wake of the All Blacks' World Cup quarter-final exit to France in October 2007, the farmer's son from Taranaki was seen as the big piece of the jigsaw that might give a trophy-contending look to a team blessed with the back-line talents of Mathew Tait, Toby Flood, Jamie Noon, Tom May and Jonny Wilkinson. Two years on, all of those home-grown Falcons have flown the nest and Hayman has become the cornerstone of a new Newcastle.

Over the course of the summer just gone, there were 23 departures from the Kingston Park playing staff. There were 17 arrivals – among them the Springbok centre Gcobani Bobo, the London Irish lock James Hudson, the Samoan back-rower Felipo Levi and the Junior All Black fly-half Jimmy Gopperth, formerly of the Blues.

As the new captain of the new-look Newcastle, it has been Hayman's task to help Steve Bates, the club's director of rugby, blend the new blood into a winning mix. Thus far, it has been more of an evening mix. In the Guinness Premiership the Falcons have drawn against Leeds, Sale and Harlequins and lost away to Leicester (15-9) and at home to Saracens (22-15). They have won in the European Challenge Cup against Padova and Albi but at Bath this afternoon they will line up without a Premiership victory on the board.

"Statistically speaking, a lot of teams find it tough to win away in the Premiership, so it's a good challenge for us," Hayman says, contemplating the prospect of running out at a Recreation Ground doubtless still rocked by the Heineken Cup win that got away from Bath against Stade Français last Sunday, thanks in no small part to a late Ollie Phillips try. "We haven't been too far off the pace – a large number of draws and a couple of reasonably narrow losses – so it's a good chance for us to kick-start our season, and to sort out the little things that have been letting us down to date.

"There are some things that take a bit longer than others but the good thing is that everyone's keen to work hard in the team. The attitude has been really good. If you don't have that, and a bit of backbone, then it's pretty hard to build anything.

"I've never been involved in a team with so many changes, so it's a new experience for me – especially being captain, having so many new guys and having to gel everyone together as a team. But, in a way, it's fairly exciting because there's no history there, no baggage. It's a whole new group of people, so effectively we can shape it how we want to. Yeah, it's been interesting... but we're getting there."

Where Hayman has come from is Opunake, a small town in Taranaki that has also produced Peter Snell, the great barrel-chested New Zealand master of the middle distance who struck Olympic gold at 800m and 1500m at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, and Graham Mourie, the flanker who captained the All Blacks on their Grand Slam tour of Britain and Ireland in 1978. Mourie was All Black number 757. Hayman came in at 1,000.

The future Newcastle captain won his first cap against Samoa in 2001 and his 45th as the World Cup favourites were crushed by a French quarter-final fightback in Cardiff two years ago. In between times, with his trademark beard, Hayman became a totemic titan at tight head for his country and for the Highlanders, gaining universal acknowledgement as the most pre-eminent prop on the planet.

After six years in the All Black pressure cooker back home, the now clean-shaven Kiwi has been savouring the relative anonymity of his life on Tyneside. "I don't get stopped around town," he says. "With Newcastle being a football town, rugby's got a lower profile here. It's completely different to what you get used to back home. It's quite nice, in a way, just to be able to go about your business."

And yet, with his contract up at the end of the season, surely the 29-year-old national treasure will be heading back to the Land of the Long White Cloud (and of the Long Wait for the Webb Ellis Trophy) to be part of the All Black quest to win the World Cup on home soil in 2011? "I haven't really made any firm decisions," Hayman says. "At the moment I'm just concentrating on my captaincy role at the Falcons, just pouring my best efforts into getting the team up there in the table. Obviously, there's some stage of the season when I'm going to have to give my future a bit of thought. Going back to New Zealand to play there again is definitely one of the options."

As Graham Henry prepares his squad for their autumn tour of Europe, the All Blacks' head coach will be very glad to hear as much. After an unimpressive Tri-Nations series, which included a trio of defeats against the Springboks, Henry has started to double as forwards coach in an effort to tighten his pack. His task would be an awful lot easier with New Zealand's prop idol back at tight head.

In the meantime, Hayman will continue to lead the Falcons by example in his measured Quiet Man way. Newcastle's No 3 goes about his captaincy with the kind of pragmatism you might expect of someone whose ultimate professional goal is to maintain the family farming tradition. After home matches, he insists on taking his players to mingle with the punters in the West Stand bar before they fulfil their obligations with the corporate fraternity upstairs. On Tuesday and Thursday evenings he can be found coaching the butchers and bakers who turn out for Blyth Rugby Club, members of Durham/Northumberland Second Division.

In turn, the great All Black draws great inspiration from his sister Rebecca. She was paralysed from the waist down at the age of 21 in a car accident in 2006. Formerly a talented rugby player, she has since represented her country at wheelchair basketball and is now trying to make the Paralympic grade in the track and field throwing events. "She's doing well," Hayman says. "She's enjoying the training and the challenge. It is an inspiration to me. If you see people who haven't been dealt the best sort of cards in life take up challenges, it's an inspiration to anyone."

Brown study: Hayman on an in-flight 'record'

It takes some bottle to tackle Carl Hayman but in the interests of nailing the legend the questions have to be asked. So has he ever downed 60 bottles of Newcastle Brown? "Sixty?" he queries. "In one go? No ... I'm not sure where you're going here."

The gentle smile on the lips of the tight-head prop suggests otherwise. We are going back to the flight from Heathrow that took the All Blacks home to Christchurch after their quarter-final exit from the 2007 World Cup. Hayman, folklore has it, knocked back 60 cans of lager, breaking the sporting "world record" set by David Boon en route to London from Sydney with the Australian cricket team for the 1989 Ashes. The Tasmanian, known as "kegs on legs," managed a mere 52.

"Oh, I don't know if it was 60, but it was a fair few," Hayman says, overcome with natural modesty. "You might have to ask Andrew Hore [the All Blacks hooker] when he comes over, because he was sitting with me. I know we sampled a few on the way home. I'm not sure if we got to 60..."