GO ON BULL, 'TIS YOUR FIELD...
It's a simple message in large lettering across a massive red banner. It's travelled across Europe and probably the world to some of the most storied stadiums where rugby is played. Its message is not for a specific team or opposing set of supporters, its for one man. John Hayes, known around these parts as The Bull.
John Hayes played his final game in a Munster jersey on St. Stephens night at Thomond Park, the spiritual home of Munster rugby in Limerick city. Since then the tributes have flowed in. From former team mates and coaches, not to mention former opponents. So many tributes that will no doubt have left the notoriously quiet to the point of being shy and private man feeling uncomfortable. Even a longtime Leinster fan like me couldn't fail to be moved by the scene of this behemoth of a man taking his final bow. His contribution to the glorious rise of the professional game in this country will only ever be truly recognised by those in this country, but then that's how he'd probably prefer it.
His career is made all the more remarkable by the fact he didn't play a game of rugby with his local club Bruff until he was nineteen. Before that it was all GAA in a GAA mad part of rural Limerick. A trained welder, he made a trip to New Zealand in the late nineties "to play a bit of rugby, just to go someplace for a while." While there he bulked up by around two and a half stone and made the positional switch from back row forward to tighthead prop. It was on his return that he really started making waves at club level and it wouldnít be long before Munster and Ireland beckoned. It would be the start of a decade in one of the most physically harrowing positions on the pitch. A decade unchallenged for his place, a decade of glory for the quiet farmer from Cappamore, Co. Limerick.
His timing was unintentionally impeccable. 217 caps for Munster during which he won three Celtic Leagues, a Celtic Cup and two memorable Heineken Cups. 105 caps for Ireland during which he won four Triple Crowns and a first Grand Slam for over sixty years. Two World Cup appearances and a few outings for The Lions, the man has done it all.
More than that he comes across as the everyman. The quiet farmer who worked and trained hard to get to where he did
While the likes of Brian O'Driscoll, Ronan O'Gara and Paul O'Connell were regularly showered with plaudits from journalists it was the quiet Hayes who always turned up, always gave every ounce he could. The model professional. I have argued in the past that with professionalism comes many good things and some bad. The bad being, the huge amounts of money being earned by the Henson's and Ciprianis of this world. The money never mattered to the Bull, neither did the plaudits for that matter. Following Irelands Grand Slam victory in Cardiff a public reception was organised for the team and thousands of fans in Dublin. Hayes got off the plane in Dublin and headed straight back to the farm to see his newborn daughter, Roisin. He takes self-effacement to new levels. For many like me from a GAA background who came to rugby late, Hayes will always be associated with an Irish team that brought legions of new fans to the sport. That combination of Leinster flair and Munster grit and guts, the latter embodied by Hayes. More than that he comes across as the everyman. The quiet farmer who worked and trained hard to get to where he did. You see, we Irish can identify with that more readily than with O'Driscoll and his actress wife. We feel like he's one of us. The fact of the matter is he is not. He's been a professional sportsman for over a decade at the top of the game, with levels of talent, dedication and sacrifice us mere mortals can't comprehend. Paul Kimmage, journalist and Lance Armstrong baiter, calls it the sporting mind. It's a great description of the mindset that sets the John Hayes of this world apart from the rest of us.
Most of us this side of the Irish Sea watched that remarkable Six Nations game against England at Croke Park in 2007. Most of us had an understanding of what it meant to have that English team singing along to God Save the Queen on that most hallowed of turf. Few of us could quite believe what we were seeing when the hulking prop forward with the gnarled ears wept openly as the Irish National Anthem played. I get shivers now just thinking about it. It confirmed to me and many others that Hayes was the quiet soul of this team. He got the cultural significance of that day and embodied an entire country's mood. Then there was 2009. I was in the Millennium Stadium that evening when Ireland won its first Grand Slam in 61 years. Not for Hayes the wild jumping, flag waving or fist pumping, just a big smile and quiet satisfaction at another one of life's goals chalked off. It's a match I'll never forget and a night I have trouble remembering.
So John Hayes is gone but thankfully we'll always have our memories. A time when Irish rugby basked in the sunlight linked forever with his twelve-year career. We may never have a time like it or a player like him. John Hayes is gone, back to his farm and family but if I can bastardise another quote from that John B Keane play/film, "gone, but not forgotten Flanagan."
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