No bull in these memoirs

Some day he’ll enter those turnstiles in Thomond Park.

He’ll carry no special pass. He’ll look for no special treatment or VIP entry. He’ll just pay in “like any punter and in I’ll go,” he says, “same as anyone else”, unannounced, just as he humbly entered a rugby field for the first time in Bruff 20 years ago.

As of now though, he still hasn’t gone back to see them play since he waved goodbye to all that and all of us last Stephen’s Day. It’s still too soon for that. Instead his days are spent mostly here, out in Cappamore, either in his fine spacious house with Fiona and the three kids, or out on the fields with his father, farming sucklers for beef. He likes this, life in the quiet fields, away from the roars of support of the Thomond faithful and the roars of laughter from the bowels of the dressing rooms below, but sometimes there’s no escaping them or what they shared.

Last March he found himself trying to find a spot in the car park in Shannon Airport ahead of catching a flight to see his brother Tom playing for Exeter in the English Premiership, when he spotted a familiar car. “Wait, I’m pretty sure that’s Marcus’s!”

Sure enough when he entered the big glassed doors in the departure lounge, there was one Mister Horan & Co. Worse, they were on the same flight, to Bristol, for their game against Newport in the Rabo. Well, the abuse he got. ‘Not even retired three months and you can’t be without us!’

Last week it was the same when he was up in Dublin for the Late Late Show. The first vehicle he spotted while landing at the Radisson in Stillorgan was the kit van of the Munster team. Turned out the entire team were staying there ahead of their date with Leinster in the Aviva. He made a point of keeping the head down and keeping out of their way but the few he invariably bumped into didn’t spare him. “God, quit stalking us, John! It’s over! Get over it! Move on!”

Actually that’s the part he probably misses most; the ribbing and the slagging, as much as he knows it was always a bit surreal, a group of grown men, many of them 30-somethings, messing and carrying on like children. But in a way he hasn’t really been away from it either. A good part of the last nine months has been spent working on his autobiography (The Bull: My Story, Simon & Schuster). The result is an enjoyable and fascinating insight into the dressing room and scrum Hayes used to inhabit.

One of the recurring themes throughout the book is that for all the affection Hayes commanded from Munster and Ireland supporters and as much as he appreciated that goodwill, what he truly treasured was the respect of his peers, both team-mates and opponents.

“I hated the idea of not being rated by my direct opponent,” he writes at one point. “You wanted the respect of your opponent. You wanted him going home thinking, ‘Christ, that was a hard day against him today’.” He particularly respected some England players and treasured the respect they showed him. A lovely passage in the book is his recollection of the 2001 Six Nations game against England in Lansdowne Road. It was the year of the foot and mouth crisis when the disrupted schedule and Scotland tripped up Ireland’s hopes of a Triple Crown and then Peter Stringer and Ireland tripped up England’s hopes of a Grand Slam, the third consecutive year Woodward’s team had been foiled on the last day from sweeping the entire championship. After the game England prop Jason Leonard left the devastating silence of his own dressing room to join the joyous scenes in the opposing one, carrying a six-pack of Budweiser.

“I can still see him coming in, the cans of Bud hanging on the little plastic ringy thing, and him plonking down beside Woody [Keith Wood], Claw [Peter Clohessy], Gaillimh [Mick Galwey] and myself, handing us all a beer and then drinking and chatting away with us.

“Here was a man who had just lost another Grand Slam, who that day had broken Sean Fitzpatrick’s record of international caps for a front-row player, and yet here he was having a beer with someone like me with just a dozen caps or so. Jason Leonard was the hardest man you could meet on the field but off it he was just the nicest fella you could ever meet. I wanted to put that in the book, because for me he’s the kind of fella who makes rugby what it is.”

He respected Martin Johnson too and believes the feeling was mutual, that the red-carpet furore was an irrelevance to the men who would crouch and then crash against each other out on that battlefield. In the 2002 Heineken Cup final against Leicester, the day of the hand of Neil Back, Johnson also tried something underhand that day and Hayes had no problem with either. At one point Johnson tried to pull down a Munster maul and when he ended up on the floor Hayes gave him a dose of his boot. Johnson didn’t bat an eyelid to either Hayes or the officials.

“As soon as he got up, he just jogged back to his side of the field. He knew he’d tried to pull down a maul, and I did what he expected me to do. In fact I think he’d have been disappointed if he hadn’t been booted like he was.

“If he’d got away with it he’d probably have gone back to the Leicester pack and said these fellas are a bunch of softies, they wouldn’t even shoe you when you were on the ground.”

It was a merciless place, in that scrum, but hardly humourless either. In the book Hayes recalls playing Italy in Ireland’s 2009 Grand Slam campaign. Martin Castrogiovanni, the opposing prop, was trying to be verbally as well as physically intimidating, telling Marcus Horan that it was going to be one long day for him. Hayes told him not so politely to shut up, assessing that the Italian was “a good player but a bit of a bullshitter”. Turned out about 20 minutes into the game Castrogiovanni had to go off injured with one member of the Irish pack remarking to him, “’Twas a fairly f****n’ short day for you!”

It could be a brutally tough place, the front row. He remembers his first game playing there, when he took a year out in his early 20s to travel to and play in New Zealand. In the bar afterwards he couldn’t even raise his head to converse with his team-mates in Invercargill, his eyes instead remaining comically rooted to the floor, his neck muscles were so strained and unaccustomed to such pressure. But he didn’t mind. This book is not Engaged, the brilliant collaboration between Matt Hampson and Paul Kimmage, which stressed the dangers of the position. Hayes was ignorant to such danger. The prospect of being paralysed never entered his head. If it had, he says, he could never have played there.

In that way, he was lucky. He was lucky to play the game at all. For the first 19 years of his life he’d never gone near it. Hurling and football were his games, though looking back they weren’t his passion. He had none. In school he was a bit of a messer while he could break the hearts and patience of the local GAA mentors too.

“I would have been a pain in the hole for them,” he smiles. “If they organised training I’d come up with any excuse not to go.”

It took a lot of humming and hawing before he’d go down to the rugby field as well. A neighbour, John O’Dea, or Jack Day as everyone knew him by, had mentioned to him a few times he should try out the oval ball sometime but Hayes never followed up on it until one Tuesday evening he was closing the farm gate when Jack Day was passing by in his car.

He was going to training. He had a spare pair of boots in the boot too so there was no excuse this time. So Hayes went. He loved it right away.

That Sunday he played his first game, at blindside flanker. It finished 0-0. It was awful. It was brilliant. Hayes was hooked. He hadn’t a clue how to play the game but he was mad keen to learn.

“There was just something about it. While I never had that drive to go training for hurling or football, once I started playing rugby for Bruff I’d have trained five nights a week if they wanted. I just felt I could cut loose in it. I watch games of hurling and football still all the time and you’ll see a defender stand his ground but the forward will fall down, stay down and get his free.

“I found that very frustrating. The two of us might fall over but the free would be given against me because I was the bigger man. In rugby you could go in much harder. I’m not saying I was great at hurling or football. Believe me, I was no great loss to either! But rugby suited me far much more.”

He had no great masterplan. All along the goal was simply to get that bit better, bit by bit. He had no aspirations to play for Munster or Ireland or to go pro; he’d have been just as happy being a farmer or a welder which he worked as before the big time came along. As he puts it so neatly in his book, “I played for a team and then someone asked me to play for a slightly better team.”

That never changed. He never stopped striving to get better and never got hung up on taking up the game so late.

“You might have heard the odd murmur, that you were starting late but there was never a point where I said ‘I can’t hack this.’ I got a lot of help and advice from coaches along the way. Anytime I played things would go wrong but I’d just learn from them and come back for the next session and next game and just get better.”

He always viewed himself as a work in progress. From Bruff to Shannon to Munster to Ireland. He was 26 when he made his Six Nations debut in 2000. Four years later he was well established with both province and Ireland but even in his 30s he was driving on. He was better again when Munster finally won the Heineken Cup in 2006, and better again when Ireland won the Grand Slam in 2009 when he was 35.

“I never understood this thing of people saying ‘Ah, that fella’s 30, his legs are going now’. David Wallace was in the best shape of his career before he injured his knee in the World Cup warm-up games and he was 35. What you think is training hard, there’s always new ways to train better and smarter.”

Of course time finally did catch up on him. In the last year or two there were signs of slippage. While there was never a problem getting motivated for a game in the Heineken or even a home game in the Direct, the constant video analysis and all the travel to Rabo Direct games did become a bit of a chore. And ultimately his performance dipped slightly too. When Declan Kidney hadn’t a spot for him for the 2011 World Cup, Hayes couldn’t really argue or complain. He just wished he could have done without playing a warm-up game against Connacht a few days later. It was the one and only day he can recall not wishing to play a game of rugby.

A few months later though when he played Connacht again in his last game for Munster or anyone else, he was totally at peace with himself and the game. It was the one day in his career he never felt any nerves. Every other day there had always been some nerves. If he felt in the lead up to a big game that he was too wound up, he’d go up to his room and put on some telly to relax; then if he felt he was too relaxed he’d go back down to the team room and talk to someone about the game for a few minutes, maybe even do some analysis on the laptop, before leaving it there, knowing he was just where he needed to be.

That day, there was none of it, but that was fine. Playing that day, waving goodbye to the 15,000 faithful in the stands, flanked by his wife and kids and being saluted by his opponents, their respect having long been won, “it was just the best day ever”.

The overriding feeling that night was a sense of gratitude and it’s how he looks on his career as well; with that profound sense of gratitude. Looking on the incredible appeal of that Munster team, it was probably because they were the team of the people, a GAA team with an oval ball, and none of them was more a man of the people than Hayes. While he was an everyday, ordinary man, his path had hardly been ordinary. That’s what motivated him more than anything to write his book, to get the message out there that it doesn’t matter where you’re from or if you take the game up late, or if you’re played out of position early on, if you love the game and work hard at it, you’ll make a success of it, in some form or another.

He’ll be fine without it too. The most striking thing about him is just how well adjusted and grounded a man he is. Being a stay-at-home dad doing a bit of farming with his own dad, he couldn’t be more content, but all the more so when he thinks about and thanks the day Jack Day happened to meet him closing the gate. Closing that gate opened up something else. A field that though he’s yet to return to, will always partly be his, The Bull’s.

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