By Barry Coughlan
WHEN a heavyweight praises the lightweight, you sit up and take notice. Ireland’s biggest man, John Hayes, played a huge role in the victory over Wales at Lansdowne Road yesterday, but gave most of the credit to the smallest and lightest player on the pitch, the diminutive Peter Stringer.
Hayes almost bowled over half the team in an effort to congratulate the scrum half when he scored a late try. He commented: "he was buzzing out there, getting around the place, passing well and he made a few great breaks to put the pressure on them. He had a brilliant game and it was great to see him finish off such a good display with a try."
Hayes had every reason to feel happy with the outcome on a day when he won his 60th cap but explained that the milestone had hardly entered his head. "When you get out on the pitch, you only think about a couple of things - dominating the opposition and winning.
Though he singled out Stringer for special mention, Hayes believes this win was essentially down to a team performance. "A few guys stood out from time to time, but everyone worked hard for one another to put us in the position we found ourselves in. The work rate was there and we got the rewards as a result," he said.
Hayes admitted to feeling physically ill at the precise moment that front row colleague Marcus Horan went down with a neck injury late in the game.
"You always worry about colleagues when they get injured, especially anything to do with the neck or the head. Happily, we got a signal from the doctor and physiotherapist early on that he was ok, and he was taken off as a precautionary measure. Hopefully, he will be fine for the next match."
If Stringer’s try was the final blow to Wales, the knockout punch came much earlier, according to coach Scott Johnson.
"We went in at half-time thinking we were in a pretty good position, but they hit us with three scores very early on. It was an uphill struggle from the time that they got their second try and almost impossible when O’Gara added a couple of penalties," he said.
Flanker Martyn Williams agreed. "After that try, we had no alternative but to try to force the game. Sometimes that can work, but unfortunately we made too many mistakes and dug a bigger hole for ourselves.
"That’s a very good Irish team and they punished us for the mistakes we made as well, of course, as playing pretty well themselves. We can’t make any excuses, Ireland were the better team and they deserved the win, probably by that margin too. We have got to get back to basics, work on the things we didn’t do well and try to get our season back on some type of track," he said.
Johnson is conscious that this could be a difficult task. "There will be a lot of soul searching and we have got to see where we want wrong. We went out to play a certain type of game, as we always do, but Ireland stopped us from doing so.
"There were times when I felt like pulling my hair out when we tried to do things that clearly weren’t going to work, but that’s rugby. Decisions have to be taken in the heat of the moment, and I would prefer that the guys try things rather than not try things. That’s my approach to the game and I won’t blame them because they tried and failed," he added.
Captain Michael Owen admitted as much. "Things didn’t go right for us at times, there were a few key moments but we mostly have ourselves to blame. You can’t afford to defend for so long against a team like Ireland and expect to get away with it," he said.