When the big man’s name was called at the pre-match teams announcement, it was greeted by a roar of huge proportions. But that was dwarfed by the massive cheer that rang out as he led the side out on to the pitch.
Every time he touched the ball or brought off a telling tackle after that, the animated reaction left no doubt as to the main focus of an attendance of the 15,284. And, after 58 minutes, the stadium rose to their feet and applauded long and loud for the best part of a minute as The Bull was called ashore for the last time. Every member of the Munster side joined in.
A delightful evening for the Hayes family was rounded off when he posed for pictures with his wife Fiona Steed and daughters Róisin and Sally and saluted his home stadium fans for the last time.
Fittingly, too, the occasion was marked by a 24-9 Munster victory that moves them within a point of second placed Ospreys and once again demonstrated the province is blessed with an array of promising young material.
Full-back Sean Scanlon attended to his primary duties in splendid fashion and capped an enterprising attacking display with a fine try. Simon Zebo on the left wing also looked full of running, while Billy Holland and Paddy Butler up front certainly put their hands up for further recognition on an even bigger stage.
Connacht were something of a disappointment. Coach Eric Elwood understandably bemoaned the number of turnovers they made a crucial stages and certainly a side with just one change from that which almost beat Gloucester on their home turf in the Heineken Cup a week earlier failed to make the hoped for impression and can hardly be relishing a visit from form team Leinster next weekend.
Munster out-half Ian Keatley hardly had the start he would have wanted against his team mates of recent seasons when he missed a couple of penalties from more than 40 metres before opening Munster’s account with an easy kick on seventeen minutes.
Connacht quickly played themselves into a likely attacking position only to turn over possession deep in the opposition 22 and from where Sean Scanlon made ground up the right wing, beat a couple of tackles with a nicely balanced run before launching a seemingly perfect cross kick in Keatley’s path. However, he was unable to hold an awkwardly bouncing ball although he had the immediate consolation of another successful penalty shot in the 22nd minute.
Niall O’Connor cut Connacht’s arrears but another turnover, this time by Paddy Butler, led to another superb counter attack with Keith Earls and Luke O’Dea playing prominent roles before Scanlon took the latter’s pass to race in for a really classy try that Keatley converted.
Tomás O’Leary was then gifted a try when Fetu’u Vainikolo lost his footing dealing with a loose ball behind his own line when under no real pressure and at 18-3 behind at half time, Connacht were facing a serious uphill battle.
Their cause certainly wasn’t helped either side of the interval by a couple of easy penalty misses by O’Connor. He did find the target on 47 minutes only for Keatley to reply within 60 seconds.
One was left to doubt Connacht’s ambition to win the game rather than settle for a losing bonus point when they persisted in kicking for goal instead of chasing the seven pointers that might have earned them their first win at the venue since 1986.
The game developed into a kicking duel between O’Connor and Keatley and that was never going to end in Connacht’s favour. The pair again exchanged kicks to bring the score in Munster’s favour to 24-9 before a yellow card for Donncha O’Callaghan left Munster shorthanded as the visitors enjoyed their best spell of the game.
They strung a series of phases together deep in Munster territory but a resolute defence held them at bay and Munster were the side on the attack at the final whistle.
MUNSTER: S Scanlon; L O’Dea, K Earls, D Barnes, S Zebo; I Keatley, T O’Leary; M Horan, D Fogarty, J Hayes, D O’Callaghan, M O’Driscoll (capt), B Holland, N Ronan, P Butler.
Replacements: B J Botha for Hayes 59; J Coughlan for Butler 62; D Williams for O’Leary 63; S Henry for Fogarty and I Nagle for O’Driscoll 76; S Deasy and T Gleeson for Keatley and Zebo 75.
CONNACHT: G Duffy (capt); F Vainikolo, E Griffin, D McSharry, T O’Halloran; N O’Connor, F Murphy; B Wilkinson, E Reynecke, R Loughney, G Naoupu, M McCarthy, D Gannon, J O’Connor, J Muldoon.
Replacements: K Tonetti for McSharry half time; M Kearney for Gannon 52; P O’Donohoe for Murphy 57; R Ah You for Loughney 64; M Jarvis for O’Connor 64; A Flavin for Reynecke 65; E McKeon for Muldoon 76.
Referee: Dudley Phillips (IRFU).