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Ex-Chief Hayes blazing a trail for Shannon in his own December back-to-backs
Tom Hayes, who played such a key role in bringing Exeter to the top tier of English rugby, has guided Shannon to a Christmas number 1 slot in the Ulster Bank League.

AS A FORMER Exeter Chiefs captain, and a central totem of the club’s history, Tom Hayes will be keeping a keen eye Sunday’s Champions Cup action.

Tom Hayes kicks ahead James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

But it is a long way short of being a priority this weekend; he had his own crucial December back-to-backs to worry about.

Hayes, a brother of Ireland centurion John, answers the phone from the farm in Cappamore, a short enforced break in morning feeding time for his livestock. There’s never a shortage of work to do. In the afternoon, he will head into Limerick to take training for Shannon RFC.

The retired lock has been involved with Shannon since 2016 and took over as head coach from Marcus Horan in January. ‘The Parish’ is thriving on his watch, even if a combination of Hayes’ reluctance to approach anything even resembling self-praise and the fickle, congested nature of the Ulster Bank League means he won’t admit as much.

Yesterday, Hayes sent his team out for the second helping of a back-to-back clash with Ballynahinch, a quirk of the fixture list that left the top two sides in Division 1B travelling to one another on the final weeks before the league’s Christmas break. A thumping 49-19 win on Thomond Park’s back pitch ensured it will be Shannon who sit top of 1B going in to 2018.

Not only that, but having lost just twice in this campaign and with 38 points posted on the table, Hayes’ side have already clocked up their best points tally in three years.

Since relegation from 1A in 2013, Shannon have settled for a run of mid-table finishes, but now there is a renewed sense of exuberance and purpose.

It’s difficult to look beyond the lessons Hayes has brought back home from his period in Devon. It’s a six-year stint that he looks back on fondly, apart perhaps from the sixth.

“I’d retired by this stage of my sixth season,” he says with a sense of lingering pain still in an otherwise uncompromising voice.

“I had surgery (on my back) but it didn’t really work. I tried playing, but it wasn’t really happening unfortunately.”

Tom Hayes lifts the cup Andrew Paton / INPHO Hayes lifts the AIL title in 2005. Andrew Paton / INPHO / INPHO

Having led Shannon in the latter years of their All-Ireland League dominance — winning three titles in blue and black — Hayes took the chance to test himself in England with Plymouth before Exeter came calling in 2009.

He brought a hard edge to the Chiefs engine room, a trait undoubtedly admired by another one-time uncompromising lock, Rob Baxter. With Hayes at the heart of their efforts, Exeter forced their way to promotion at the end of his first season. And once in the Premiership, they’ve barely looked back.

It was with Exeter that Hayes got the chance to have a cut off Leinster. He made his presence well and truly felt too, helping a relatively unheralded side on their first Heineken Cup adventure to choke Joe Schmidt’s double European champions and come within a nose of an opening day upset in 2012. Instead, they had to be content with a 9-6 defeat.

That Exeter’s team that day contained nine of the XV who won promotion over two years earlier is indicative of the gradual, sustainable approach to progress brought about by Baxter. Over the course of the past eight years, the homegrown director of rugby has presided over a remarkable rise from second tier stalwarts to champions of England.

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It’s a success that’s based on quality recruitment, a gameplan of sound fundamentals and, first and foremost, an oak-strong culture that is the envy of clubs everywhere.

“The environment, that’s been the crucial thing all along. (It’s) something we were very conscious of while I was still there and I know well it won’t have changed much.

“Maybe the tone might have changed because the personnel have changed, but it still has to be an environment that everyone has to enjoy going into.

“One of Rob’s first things when he took over as head coach, he told the players: ‘I’ll never forget this player asking: what do you want to get out of your rugby? He said you have to enjoy it.’

Rob said that always stuck with him. It had to be an enjoyable environment that fellas relish coming into.

“So, essentially, going into work every day isn’t going to be any sort of a chore. They have to want to be there. That makes them want to attack anything they want to do with more enthusiasm. I think that shows.”

Of course there’s more than just making players happy involved in making a club into a champion of England. On top of the indefinable holistic efforts to bring enjoyment to the camp, Baxter is a stoic, hard-nosed pragmatist.

“He’s pragmatic, but still fairly optimistic at the same time,” says Hayes, quickly following up to steer away from the pejorative sense of the word.

“Sometimes when people hear someone is pragmatic, they think conservatism or pessimism.

“Rob’s very pragmatic. He rarely blows the fuse. Most people thought he’d be an Alex Ferguson type, that you’d be getting the hairdryer treatment given the way he played.  He’s not like that at all.

Rob Baxter James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

“He’s very controlled, very diligent, and he’s good at keeping his finger on the pulse in terms of what the team needs to get in the right frame of mind to play a match.

“He’s very good at setting the tone for a group. That’s just on the mental or psychological side, but he’s also unbelievably diligent and thorough in what he does in preparing for the technical side of things.”

These are all lessons which are showing in Hayes’ efforts with Shannon squad too. A comprehensive 49-19 win to take over the division’s summit is testament to a whole lot going right since he took the reins in January.

“In fairness, we’ve a good bunch of boys there who are certainly buying into it and want to succeed. It’s down to them as much as anything,” the 37-year-old says, deflecting praise onto his players before comparing their efforts last season to the great teams of the late 90s.

“Given what the consequences could have been of getting relegated (a continuous slide down), I think this group of players pulling themselves out of that hole last season was as good an achievement as any Shannon team has had over the last 20 years. Because the consequences of it could have been massive.”

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It’s odd, Hayes accepts, but he thought he was passing up the chance at a coaching life when he decided to return home from Exeter with his wife Rachel and three children. With just four professional outfits on these shores, there is just no comparison in the level of work opportunities here and across the channel. But he’s making it work and he’s putting the knowledge he’s picked up home and away to good use. Not only on one front, but on two as he is also in charge of the nearby Glenstal Abbey School, who won their way through to the Munster Schools Senior Cup final last year.

With so much to occupy his schedule, the former head Chief doesn’t get much chance to call over and watch his old posse in the flesh these days. Not even for the crowning glory of Premiership final day.

“But I was over for Gareth Steenson’s testimonial day in August,” he chirps.

“It was good to step back into the bubble for a day. Same old craic, it was the same as if we’d never been away, except we’re all older, balder and fatter.”

Ego-free, but unwavering in their focus. It’s the way Exeter build them.

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