Well Red: the John Hayes, a Munster rugby public admired, but never knew

The Bull My Story

John Hayes

Simon & Schuster, €18.99;

adobe ebook, €29.34

Review: Alan Good 

To say John Hayes wasn’t a fan of the limelight during his stellar rugby career with Munster, Ireland and the Lions would be doing the man a disservice — he absolutely abhorred it.

It wasn’t just that the giant prop from Cappamore avoided press conferences or media interviews like they were dangerous to his health, when a civic reception was held in Dublin to celebrate Ireland’s first Six Nations Grand Slam success in 61 years in 2009, Hayes watched it on TV from his home. He was already back in rural Limerick with his feet up before his team-mates had noticed he’d gone.

To that end, we’ve had to rely on the stream of autobiographies from Irish rugby’s so-called ‘golden generation’ to gather any insight into his character, past the image of the quiet farmer, the gentle soul buried deep in the giant frame. Donncha O’Callaghan probably provides the best Hayes anecdote when he addresses the topic of whether Munster players will remain friends after their rugby career ends.

“I keep telling Hayes that we’re going to be friends. He seems to have a problem with that.

“O’Callaghan, if you come near me, I’ll shoot you.”

“I’m going to call down to you on the farm in Cappamore and say hello.”

“O’Callaghan, I’ll only see you down the barrel of a gun. I swear, I’ll f...ing do you, O’Callaghan.”

“I don’t think he means it. He’s a softie at heart.”

It will therefore come as no surprise that even the Munster and Ireland fans, jaded by the never-ending stream of player accounts of their careers, roughly covering the same material, are dying to get stuck into Hayes’ book. Ghostwriter Tommy Conlon reckons the book shows “the John Hayes the public admired but never knew”.

Hayes’ reticence towards fuss and attention has as much to do with his legendary man-of-the-people status among the game’s supporters as the numerous successes in a career that saw him retire as Ireland’s most capped forward of all time in 2011. The media duties, the book signings, launches and Late Late Show appearance that have accompanied the book’s release will have been anathema to him, but there’s many who will have enjoyed getting to spend a bit of time in his company.

The reasons for that are obvious when you get stuck into this book. Hayes is a thoughtful fella but most things are cut and dried for him. There’s lots of black and white and very little gray. You won’t find any of the pointed barbs that pepper his former Ireland team-mate Geordan Murphy’s memoir, The Outsider, which have seen the Leicester Tigers full-back upbraided by some reviewers for coming across as petty and bitter.

Hayes has barely a bad word to say about anyone, and when he finally has a bit of a cut — Leicester and Italy prop Martin Castrogiovanni is the victim — quite late into his story. It’s wrapped up in a compliment: “Castrogiovanni is a good player, but a bit of a bullshitter... .”

That’s not to say that Hayes tries to sugar-coat anything or take caution to ensure he doesn’t offend anyone. He might not have aired much of his dirty laundry in public, but you get the impression he doesn’t have much of it anyway. His conversations with his coaches were short and on a need-to-know basis, and he seems happy that the majority of his opponents were decent off the pitch.

Hayes describes his progression from taking up the game at 18 with Bruff to moving onto life with Shannon and eventually Munster with almost child-like simplicity: “I played for a team and then someone asked me to play for a slightly better team.” One of his funniest lines — at least it will be to anyone who watched Munster throughout the 2000s — almost seems accidental; describing a helter-skelter points-fest of an Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-final away to Brive, Hayes offers: “Both sides were playing champagne rugby, and that wasn’t like us at all.”

Most readers will be more interested in finding out what makes Hayes tick, and there’s a decent bit of that to go around, even if the book is — predictably, given its author — a bit heavy on the rugby stuff and light on the personal, with the exception of a sweet section about his relationship with wife Fiona and the brevity of his wedding speech.

He gives honest appraisals of his battle to become the best scrummager he could be, and doesn’t hold back in scolding himself when he feels he made a bags of it. There’s also the usual yarns spun about the messing that inevitably goes on when large groups of sportsmen spend the majority of their time together, and you can find out why an under-12 hurling final defeat hurt him more than the 2000 Heineken Cup final loss.

Back in 2006, in one of his rare media interviews, Hayes opened the gates of the family farm in Cappamore to the Irish Examiner’s Michael Moynihan, and explained why the solitude of the fields and the distraction of jobs that needed doing around the place were the perfect antidote to pre-match nerves. “There’s days leading into a big game, where you know the pressure is on and the whole place is talking about the match. Those days it’s great to be at home, you can get your head right your own way,” he said then.

He’s on the farm all the time now, without any game to be nervous about, but the novelty hasn’t waned. The passage outlining the final few months of his career and how life has treated him since his retirement is the book’s highlight, and it bears all the hallmarks of a man extremely comfortable in his own skin and at ease with life.

Until Donncha O’Callaghan shows up at the farm gates...

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