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'I got as much out of myself for what talent I had, so I'm happy enough'

John Hayes is happy with life on the farm and coaching in Bruff RFC these days.

John Hayes after Ireland's 2009 Grand Slam.
John Hayes after Ireland's 2009 Grand Slam.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

JOHN HAYES IS sitting in the cab of his tractor when he answers the phone, taking a break from another busy morning at work.

It used to be scrums, rucks, and tackles that filled his days but now he’s occupied with the suckler cows on his farm in County Limerick. While some of his former team-mates are still involved in top-level rugby through coaching or media work, Hayes was happy to slip off the radar when he retired in 2011.

After 105 Ireland caps, a Grand Slam, two Heineken Cups, and two Lions tours, the tighthead prop returned to farming full-time.

He loves the work. It’s what he knew from a young age and there’s no comparison to rugby when it comes to the physical demands.

“Maybe years ago when they did things by hand, the stuff my father would tell me about from the 1950s when they had to do everything by shovel and all of this,” says Hayes.

“Now you’re using machinery as much as you can and there is a certain amount you have to get down and dirty for, but overall it’s nowhere near as physical as a pre-season session, the gym, a match.

“You don’t wake up on a Sunday morning not able to stand up straight like you would after a match.”

Hayes is grateful that he retired without any major injury issues. His neck has been nagging at him recently but he’s in good shape compared to many other ex-pros.

His involvement in rugby these days is through his home club of Bruff RFC, where he first played as a teenager. Hayes is one of four fathers who coach the U10s, with his nine-year-old son Bill part of the team.

John_TheBull_Hayes Hayes is an Irish Hereford Prime farmer.

His two daughters also play for the club. 15-year-old Sally is part of the U16 team and Roisin, who is nearly 13, is with the U14s.

Hayes’ wife, former Ireland international Fiona Steed, is also heavily involved and not just with Bruff. She became part of the main IRFU Committee last year and is busy trying to help grow the women’s game in Ireland.

“She’s obsessed with rugby,” says Hayes of his wife. “She’s coaching the girls in Bruff and then she’s going down the committee route because she wants to help on that side of it as well. She feels strongly about it and is really immersed in it.

“The weekends around here are full-on. We have to figure out where everyone is going. There’s two of us and there’s three of them!”

Hayes also helps out with the senior men’s team in Bruff, usually at their scrummaging sessions on a Tuesday night as he tries to pass on some of the knowledge he amassed during his remarkable career.

It was a life in professional rugby that had never been on the map for Hayes as he grew up. He was 18 before he played the sport, having been convinced to come down to Bruff and give it a go.

A subsequent spell in Invercargill in New Zealand in 1995 was formative and saw Hayes move from the second row to tighthead prop. He never looked back as he went on to make his Munster debut in 1998 and was first capped by Ireland in 2000.

“We weren’t into rugby that much when I was a young fella,” says Hayes.

“It was amateur as well, so I didn’t have any notions. I’m sure young fellas now in rugby schools or underage teams would be thinking about being a professional rugby player.

john-hayes-432000 Hayes broke into the Ireland team in 2000. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“I didn’t have any of that distraction but it was an unbelievable opportunity that I got when I was 23 or 24 when I got my first full-time contract. When I left school, that wasn’t even an option but I got that chance and I didn’t miss it. I did it for as long as I could and I got to 38. I was happy enough with that.”

Hayes always loved this time of year, with the Six Nations kicking off. This week brings up lots of fond memories, none more powerful than 21 March 2009 when Ireland squeezed past Wales in Cardiff for the country’s second-ever Grand Slam.

Hayes had to go off for a short stint in the first half of that 17-15 victory to get some stitches close to his eye.

“That was O’Connell who kicked me in the face that day,” he says with a laugh. “I lifted him and he flicked his heels back and hit me in the face.”

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But Hayes was back on within minutes and, having played the full 80 in the four previous games, he went the distance again in Cardiff. He was just to the left of Peter Stringer when the scrum-half fired the ball back to Ronan O’Gara for what proved to be the winning drop-goal in the 78th minute.

“At that stage, you were just blowing out all ends, like. There’s not really any of the young fellas in the front row doing the full 80 nowadays, I wish that was there back when I played!

“But that was a great day. We had been a long time trying. There were a few of us old enough at that stage and it just came to a day where we said it had to happen. It was too close for comfort at the end but it turned out to be a great day.”

Hayes turned 48 in November and as he reflects on his rugby career now, he is content.

Sure, he would have loved another Grand Slam or Heineken Cup or a better World Cup campaign along the way, but he believes he squeezed every drop out of his potential.

john-hayes-with-daughters-sally-and-roisin-and-wife-roisin Hayes with Sally, Fiona, and Roisin after his last game. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“I don’t have any feelings of ‘I could have done more myself’. I think I got as much out of myself for what talent I had, so I’m happy enough that way. I didn’t waste it.

“I don’t sit back and look at the boys playing now thinking that I could do what they do if I trained harder. I got as much as I was ever going to be able to get out of it. I don’t have any hangovers in that way.”

Hayes is also thankful that he got to walk away on his own terms. His 212th and final appearance for Munster came at Thomond Park in win over Connacht on 26 December 2011.

He had seen team-mates and friends shedding tears when they were forced to leave rugby, but Hayes was at ease with his exit.

“I knew when the end was in sight for me, no one was going to have to tell me twice that my time was up. You start to slow down, find training a bit harder, it’s harder to get up in the mornings before contact training, and I knew it was the time to go.

“I’m lucky. I think of lads who got injured or didn’t get a contract. They might feel they had more in them. I don’t have any of that. I got to Christmas time and finished halfway through the season. I had no problem walking away and leaving it.”

Hayes is hard to miss at 6ft 4ins so he always gets people coming up to him for rugby chats when he’s out and about. He’s appreciative when fans thank him for his efforts on the pitch for Munster and Ireland. 

He’s not a drinker and admits he’s “not the most social” so the rugby reunions can pass him by but Hayes is part of the WhatsApp group with former team-mates and catches up with some of them for the odd chat.

WhatsApp Image 2020-04-24 at 21.19.35 Source: Inpho

Before he heads back to his work on the farm, Hayes answers one final question about the apparent habit he had of looking to his left during pre-match team photos [as above], something that eagle-eyed Inpho snapper James Crombie spotted.

What was Hayes looking at?

“It was probably pure superstition,” he explains after another laugh.

“Maybe I did it by accident one time before a game and felt I played OK that day and did it again. I wouldn’t do it in the official team squad photo, maybe just the pre-match one.

“It didn’t always work but it worked some days.”

In truth, Hayes’ good days were down to his own hard work and Irish rugby was all the better for his dedication.

Based on his family farm in Cappamore, Co. Limerick, John Hayes is an Irish Hereford Prime farmer. He chose to rear Hereford animals as their beef is synonymous with exceptional taste, quality, and sustainability. Irish Hereford Prime can be found on the menu of top restaurants and hotels across Ireland and abroad. For more information click here

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Murray Kinsella

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