His playing days may be over but as Shannon coach, the pressure to succeed is in no way diminished.
Hayes’ love of the game was bred in Bruff and his skills were honed in Shannon before he moved to Plymouth Albion and then onto Exeter Chiefs in 2008, making 136 appearances with the club.
He led the club into the Premiership after a two-legged play-off with Bristol in 2010 earned promotion.
He remained as captain the following season and was a key member of the side up to his forced retirement in 2013.
Exeter’s loss is Shannon’s gain — at least everyone associated with the club hopes that Hayes will be the man to steer the ship back to the top flight after a few traumatic years with the famed Limerick club.
Tomorrow, Shannon begin their Ulster Bank League campaign — against University College Cork — from a position of weakness rather than strength, their place in Division 1B a bitter pill for their loyal band of supporters more used to success than struggles over the years.
Shannon have won the Munster Senior Challenge Cup 19 times since their first success in 1960 and the club also garnered nine national titles in the period from 1994 to 2009.
Last year, following the departure of head coach Marcus Horan, Hayes took over the reins. It was a tough season for Shannon when they brushed with relegation for the most part, but they did survive. Hayes hopes there will be no repeat relegation fight this season.
Last season’s visit to the Mardyke didn’t yield much joy but Hayes looks forward to a new seasonal challenge. Defeat to holders Cork Constitution — late on in the game — in the Munster Senior Cup last weekend hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm.
“Hopefully, a positive performance last week wasn’t just because it was Con in the other dressing room but we’ll just have to wait and see. Hopefully, it will stand to us because we were involved in a game against quality opposition and in one of very high intensity. These are the kind of experiences that you have to prepare for for a long campaign,” he said.
Hayes believes the worst is over for Shannon following the fall from the top flight.
“I reckon there are reasons for optimism. Hopefully, we can start to believe after a positive display against the best team in the country. I would hope that the players can find something more in this campaign and I figure we are capable of matching our upcoming opponents, no matter who they are. It’s not always going to be a Cork Con in the other dressing room so we will have to find other ways of motivation in those upcoming matches. That’s the important thing from our point of view. This is a young group of players; belief and motivation is hugely important.”
Hayes will impress on his charges that it is equally a learning curve for their coach. “Club rugby nowadays is different from when I left and I suppose I am, in a sense, playing catch-up in terms of coaching challenges. The age profile of teams in all clubs is younger and, because of professionalism, the best players are not always available for selection. That presents a different challenge in the clubs, not least for the coaches and it’s a learning curve for all concerned.”
Meanwhile, another famous name will be plying his trade in the All-Ireland League this weekend. Former Ireland and Leinster stalwart Mike Ross (37) has taken up a playing/coaching role with Malahide ahead of their first season in Division 2C. The veteran tighthead prop is expected to feature against Bective Rangers in the first game of the season tonight. He will also act as the Dublin club’s scrum coach.