John Hayes is six-feet-four inches tall. He weighs 280 pounds. He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t party. He doesn’t raise his voice. He gets embarrrassed in the limelight and avoids TV interviews whenever he can. When he can’t avoid them, he stares at his feet and says it was all thanks to the lads.
Last Saturday, John Hayes became the first ever Irish player to win 100 international caps. Nine years ago, Jason Leonard, the English prop, reached 100 caps in the international between Ireland and England. After the game, Leonard walked into the Irish dressing room with a six pack of beer, looking for Hayes. He handed over his jersey with his name and the match date embroidered on it, and in recognition of the honour, Hayes shared with Leonard one of the few beers he has ever consumed in his life.
The two men met again yesterday, after the game, and shared a little time and a few reminiscences.
When he isn’t playing professional rugby for Munster or representing Ireland internationally, John Hayes is a farmer, in Cappamore, County Limerick. He might well be the only farmer in the world who has a pair of rugby goalposts in a field full of cattle.
Yesterday, at Twickenham, Hayes lined out for the 100th time as an Ireland prop. The cameras caught him at the end of Ireland’s Call, crying like a baby, and that was when you knew how much this honour means to Hayes, a man of the utmost honesty and integrity, who has given everything asked of him by his country and his province.
He was sent off only once in an exemplary career, for stamping on Cian Healy in 2009.
It’s no harm to mention that he’s won two Heineken Cups with Munster, in 2006 and 2008, or that he has Magners League / Celtic League trophies from 2003 and 2009, or that he has a Celtic Cup title from 2005. And I suppose we should mention that he won the Six nations and the Grand Slam in 2009, as well as the Triple Crown in 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2009.
That’s not a bad record.
He’s a bit slower now than he used to be, and a bit less mobile around the pitch, but there’s still nobody to compare with him for commitment and there’s nobody to match his lifting-power in the lineout.
Declan Kidney is not a sentimental man, and he didn’t select John Hayes to start against England so that he could collect 100 caps. He selected him because Hayes was the best man for the job, even at the age of 36.
He’s old for this job, and he knows it. He doesn’t clear out the rucks like he used to, preferring instead to be one of the pillars. He doesn’t move around the field as quickly, but he’s still able for this tough sport because he came so late to it. He began his career playing GAA sports, just like fellow internationals Geordan Murphy, Brian O Driscoll and Shane Horgan, though none of them matched Tomás O Leary’s achievement of winning an All-Ireland medal, a Heineken Cup and a Grand Slam.
Because he came so late to the game, and because he was a huge young lad — 6’4″ and 19 stone at the age of eighteen — he didn’t sustain the early damage that plagued other greats, like Keith Wood. He started as a wing forward with Bruff RFC, before moving to second-row, where he was an obvious choice with his height and strength. When he moved to Invercargill in New Zealand, he converted to front row, a position he has continued to occupy.
Since 1998 he’s played at tight-head for Munster and in the last ten years he hasn’t missed a single international game, playing in 52 consecutive contests for his country.
A quiet, modest, unassuming man, John Hayes won’t be going on TV as a pundit when he finally calls an end to his career, and it can’t be long now. He doesn’t have the ready quip, or the flashy turn of phrase. He doesn’t think of himself as anything special and if they pointed a camera at him, he’d do what he always did: he’d stare at his feet until it went away, and perhaps mutter that it was all thanks to the lads.
When it ends, John Hayes will go back to his farm in Cappamore, and his friends in Bruff RFC, and maybe every now and then reflect on a job honestly done.
Bruff RFC tribute to John Hayes