JOHN HAYES looked like he would be happier in front of a firing squad than answering a spate of questions at yesterday’s press conference in Killiney at which the hero of the hour was chosen to play his 100th match for Ireland at Twickenham on Saturday.
When it comes to true, genuine modesty and an aversion to the limelight, they don’t come more dedicated to the cause than the 36 year-old Co Limerick farmer. And yet he’s been at the coalface of rugby at the highest level since he made his international debut against Scotland at Lansdowne Road in 2000.
Four others, Ronan O’Gara, Peter Stringer, Shane Horgan and Simon Easterby were also called up for their first caps that day. Ireland duly walloped the hapless Scots that day and the illustrious quintet went on to win a multitude of Irish caps.
But big John is the first to make it to 100, an amazing achievement given that he operates in the most physically demanding position on the pitch and that he has started all but four of his 99 games and played the full 80 minutes in almost all of them. He’s christened ‘The Bull’ and while it fits his massive physical frame (he weighs 19 stone 9 lbs and stands 6 ft 4ins in height), it is an absolute misnomer when it comes to describing his personality.
His replies to yesterday’s questions were, to say the least, short and to the point. But his interrogators didn’t feel short changed even when their most perceptive questions failed to arouse a great deal of the big man’s interest.
But you’re paid to try and so here goes!
How well do you remember your first cap?
“It was a very exciting day because there were the five of us in there together,” he said. “That made it extra special and the five of us have always had a special friendship since.”
Did you think then that you would go on to win so many caps?
“No, not all,” he asserted. “When I got the first one, I wanted the second and have taken it one at a time since.”
How do you explain your remarkable longevity?
“I don’t know,” he mused. “Maybe because I started old enough, about the same time as Brian (O’Driscoll) here, except that I was five years older. I didn’t start young. I was never a young fella playing against older players. I was always as old as the guys around me.”
Of the 99 to date, which game or games stand out for you?
“The obvious one is last year’s Grand Slam win in Cardiff,” he said. “It’s also a huge honour when you get your first cap. There were a lot of great victories over the years, including one-off victories in the autumn, but the Grand Slam game stands out.”
Was there any performance with which you were particularly pleased?
“None sticks out,” was all he managed for that one.
John, you played 80 minutes in most of these games. What do you put that down to?
“It’s an 80-minute game and I never looked at it any other way.”
Does it take long to recover after games these days?
“I don’t think so, once Monday/Tuesday comes around, the recovery has been done,” he claimed. “We do more recovery now than we did ten or 12 years ago. It literally starts now in the dressing room after the game.”
Who was the best prop you ever came up against?
“Os du Randt (South Africa) would be up there, I played against him twice, and he was very good.”
Were there any people you could thank for getting you to this stage?
“It would be very hard to name any one individual,” he declared.
“There have been a lot along the way from Bruff to Shannon through to Munster, a lot of fellas who started me out and helped me on the way so it would be very hard to single out any individual.”
Asked about the criticism that has come his way over the years and especially after Ireland’s most recent game in Paris where his scrummaging was concerned.
“People are entitled to their opinion,” John accepted. “It’s been a part of my game which I’ve always had to work hard on and keep trying to improve. But, no, it never hurt.”
John, how long do you think you can you keep going? Until after the 2011 World Cup maybe?
“Taking it one year at a time is the way I’ve gone up to now and we’ll see how it goes after that,” he responded. “If I stay injury free and still enjoy it, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t stay playing. I’ve been lucky with injuries. I’ve seen team mates over the years who have picked up injuries and I’ve felt so sorry for them.”
Then it fell to the two men sitting beside him, O’Driscoll and his coach of many years, Declan Kidney, to pay due tribute to Hayes.
“He’s been a huge component of Irish teams over the past ten years and the cornerstone of our scrum,” said the captain. “He’s managed to pick up four Triple Crowns and a Grand Slam along the way. It’s pretty impressive for any guy to get to play a hundred times for their country and he’ll have all the boys behind him on Saturday.”
It remains, though, to be seen if Hayes will take up O’Driscoll’s invitation to lead the team out at Twickenham!
And when it came to Kidney’s turn, he quipped: “I’d like to embarrass him but I’d probably get a dig. No, to get 100 caps in the tight head position given how fit you have to remain and how strong you have to be is an exceptional achievement. We’ve talked about it but he’s looking forward to enjoying his week and that’s what we’re going to let him do.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved