By Charlie Mulqueen
JOHN Hayes is a man of few words, so it may not have dawned on many people that he makes his 58th appearance for Ireland tomorrow and surpasses Phil Orr’s record as the most capped Irish prop.
Hayes doesn’t do press interviews so it’s as well he has a man of Paul O’Connell’s stature to sing his praises. Hardly a match passes that O’Connell doesn’t mention the big Cappamore man’s name. Playing his first game after a long-term injury in the Celtic League against Connacht, O’Connell stole an opposition throw on their own line and plunged over for an important and dramatic try. It helped earn him the man-of-the-match tag. Much the same happened last Saturday in the lead-up to the first Irish try. Again he was voted man of the match.
O’Connell insisted it couldn’t have happened without Hayes’s lifting expertise. So, it seemed a good idea to ask him to explain Big John’s strong points for the casual observer.
"I just think he’s a fabulously honest guy. So much of the hard work he does and relishes isn’t always seen. We all want to carry the ball, off-load and score tries, and that’s where the plaudits come. But John is obsessed with doing the basics week in, week out, and doesn’t get much credit for it. Like the try Jerry Flannery scored the other day, John lifted me on his own, and when I fell to the ground, he picked me up to set up the maul. As for his scrummaging, he’s a tall man and now and then he gets in trouble but he’s always, always on top of his man by the end of the day."
And Paul made a telling point when he commented: "I play in the second row, and even I sometimes struggle to know what’s going on at scrum-time so it’s a bit much when media commentators criticise him."
Having played a crucial role in so many similar tries for Munster and Ireland, it was only to be expected that O’Connell was impressed with Scotland’s second try against France last Sunday after a fantastic 30-metre maul. It’s something he never thought he would see happening to a French pack but equally, it’s clear he would love to repeat the dose at the Stade de France tomorrow.
"It was a great try," he glowed.
"Scotland played really well. They were mad up for it. They played really tidy, clever rugby and didn’t beat them kicking the leather off the ball. It was a great maul and sometimes there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. The Scots smelled blood and did very well in building a healthy lead and putting it away, whereas the French made a few mistakes and lost momentum.
"The lesson for us is that we must get stuck into them like Scotland did. As soon as Scotland got ahead, they kicked on and kept playing ball. They didn’t just keep kicking it into the corners, they kept play and playing and were very clever, and it’s up to us to do the same."
The latest head-to-head O’Connell faces is with French captain Fabien Pelous, and promises to be one of the highlights. They are old friends from past meetings at international and Heineken Cup levels and Pelous is a man for whom O’Connell has huge respect: "He’s massively important to Toulouse and France. He’s a super-fit guy and probably the best tackler for such a tall guy that I know. I remember the year Ireland won over there, Keith Wood taking a quick tap penalty and running straight at him from about 10 yards. Pelous picked him up and dumped him. For such a tall man, that was a massive thing to do and that’s one of the reasons why I admire him. He’s won over 100 caps or so, and to do that in a country with so much depth and talent is a fabulous achievement. He’s their natural leader and a very good one."
Pelous has been in trouble with the authorities once or twice, and earlier this season was suspended for 10 weeks. But O’Connell dismisses suggestions he’s a dirty player: "I don’t think he should have a reputation at all. Okay, he made a mistake against Brendan Cannon of Australia but apart from that, he’s a tough, hard, physical player but not a dirty one."
A bit like O’Connell himself, you might say. He’s been an inspirational figure for both Munster and Ireland since his return after a 10-week absence because of a broken hand. Because of the nature of the damage, he was fortunate to be able to "do lots of running and weights" and so wasn’t too far behind the others when he came back. "I’m grand now, a bit stiff and sore, but nothing too serious."
A slightly embarrassed smile spreads across his face at the mention of his selection as man of the match against the Italians: "The slag among the lads is that they picked the name out of a hat," he laughs. "It’s nice to get but doesn’t matter in the bigger picture. We were a long way off last week but we all know inside that there’s a big performance in the team.
"Just look at the talent we have, backs, forwards, there’s a big performance there somewhere. It’s something similar with the provinces. We just have to pull it out. People talk about a French backlash after Murrayfield but don’t forget we’re also coming off the back of a poor performance and must up our game appreciably. But I think the team on Saturday is stronger than the last one to win in Paris so there’s no reason why we can’t do it again."
As for the level of public expectation that the team should not alone win, but do so in style, O’Connell shares Brian O’Driscoll’s view that the end result is all that matters. His attitude is to "beat them any way we can".
"I couldn’t care less whether we spread the ball wide and win by a good amount or keep it close and get there.
"You do what you have to do to win the game and that’s what we always try to do. We don’t go out thinking: ‘this is the way we’ve got to play’. We try to figure it out on the pitch on the day and do what’s best."