October 1993. It was a typically cold and damp night at Thomond Park. Training for our Under-20 side was just about to begin, writes Shannon RFC PRO Andrew McNamara.
The dimly lit back pitch with its myriad of mud pools and divots of excavation proportions was beckoning for another arduous session under the tutelage of Brendan Foley.
Already that side was full of luminaries that would serve not only Shannon, but Munster and Ireland well for a lengthy period.
The bodies wandered in, many with little enthusiasm for the evening’s offerings, including myself, and in walks a new fella. Nothing unusual in that really.
There was no general introduction to the lads, never really was back then, you were meant to just slot in. Perhaps it was Foley’s way of seeing the pedigree of the new lad and how he reacted to new situations.
Either way, the new fella was sized up without words being used, and I think most of us in that dressing room that day came to the same conclusion.
He was tall with a broad set of shoulders, but his height was not excessive. He could not be described as skin and bone, but he certainly wasn’t overburdened with muscularity. Oh yeah, he had a big mop of thick black hair as well.
All in all, it would be fair to say he was just another big lad in from the country, and he was made welcome with the typical nod of the head and cursory pleasantries of young fellas.
Well, I can tell you now, that not in a million years, on that night, on that initial evaluation, did anyone even remotely suspect that this new fella would be become one of the most celebrated rugby legends on this Island.
“Andrew, this is John, John Hayes from Bruff.”
And that was it, our first introduction to a future legend. I would love to say that John and I soldiered in the trenches for years (oh the glory that would have been), but I sort of wandered out of rugby for a bit later in that season.
But for Hayes it would be the start of a Shannon career that set him firmly on a career path that culminates in his exit tonight at Thomond Park.
His move from second row to prop is well documented and two of this country’s most astute rugby brains are credited with setting John on the road to bigger and better things, quite literally when it comes to his now enormous frame.
Brian O’Brien and Niall O’Donovan were his mentors in Shannon and then Munster and then Ireland. Two men that quickly realised that the tall skinny fella from the Bruff club had potential.
He was corralled into the Shannon senior set-up towards the end of the 1993/94 season, but remained a peripheral figure. It was a season when we struggled to stay afloat in Division 1 of the All-Ireland League.
We went to Dungannon in a ‘do or die’ match, Hayes was on the bench and subsequently made his league debut in that game when he came on in the second row.
Shannon survived and then came the all-conquering four in-a-row All-Ireland League team. Hayes went to New Zealand, bulked up and came back with notions of propping.
He got a few chances there, but I would say he was still regarded as a second row with a bit of flexibility to move up a row in deemed necessary.
He won his first All-Ireland League medal that year before heading back to New Zealand, and it was when he returned from that stint that it was clear that his permanent position would be as a tighthead.
He missed a year during the four in-a-row while in New Zealand, but when he returned he became a constant in the Shannon front row.
The All-Ireland League in the nineties was a learning curve of epic proportions. John was guided by Niall O and Brian O.
The old Shannon warrior in the front row, Buddha, or Noel Healy to his friends, was a source of advice in the intricacies and art of the front row and John prospered in every game.
‘The Bull’ was born during that period in Shannon colours and the nickname stuck. Few can remember when exactly it stuck, but Healy reckons it was he that set it in stone.
We always saw the writing on the wall. He was bound for Munster. The European rugby odyssey was in its infancy, and the professional game was still very much intertwined with club rugby in Ireland and John continued proudly in the Shannon jersey, still a student in the art of the tighthead.
Progression for John was swift and Ireland beckoned. At that point in the late nineties the divergence of the club game and professional rugby was beginning to rear its head and the availability of contracted players to their clubs was at the behest of their paymasters. Perfectly understandable, still though John was a regular in the Shannon sides.
A very proud day not only for John, but for all of us in Shannon and Bruff RFC of course came in 2000 when he was called up for his first Ireland senior cap.
Fellow debutant Peter Stringer was a Shannon colleague and he too stood for the anthems for the first time along with Ronan O’Gara.
Gallimh (Mick Galwey) was recalled for the umpteenth time against Scotland that day and no doubt his enormous presence pushing against John’s considerable buttocks helped the nerves that day.
Who would ever have thought that John would be a constant for Ireland for the next decade and beyond?
Professional players especially those of John’s calibre were, at this stage, making only sporadic appearances for their clubs and that too would dwindle to practically non-existent, save for a return from injury.
Still though, John’s last appearance on a Shannon teamsheet came in the All-Ireland League final back in 2002 when he started against Cork Constitution.
It was a special day as John lined out with younger brother Tom behind him in the second row, and in helping Shannon win their fifth league title that day it also allowed another Hayes brother, Mike, win a coveted winner’s medal as he had also been involved in Shannon’s campaign.
Three brothers winning All-Ireland League medals in the same season is very unique in the history of the competition.
The Bull was quickly becoming indispensible to Munster and Ireland and his success for province and country is for others to extol.
The countless column inches that have been devoted to John and his representative career are well founded and well deserved, but we felt that we in Shannon should also mark his career with our own tribute, and salute his remarkable contribution to Shannon RFC during his 12-year period with us.
Four All-Ireland League medals and four Munster Senior Cup medals is not a bad haul even for a player that went on to win Heineken Cups, Triple Crowns and Grand Slams and became a British & Irish Lion.
He is a truly remarkable man in so many ways. He epitomises humility and dedication. Platitudes and plaudits come thick and fast for a retiring player of considerable statute, many through gritted teeth, but for Hayes the sincerity and bond that he has with practically everyone that crossed his path means that every utterance of praise is sincere and heartfelt.
It would be fair to say that standing ovations in the entertainment business can be orchestrated months or weeks in advance for self gain and promotion, but the announcement that John Hayes would bow out at Thomond Park on St. Stephen’s Day has seen the ticket sales swell.
The genuine emotional and heartfelt tributes from the rugby fraternity would see the stadium fill even if it was only John Hayes that would be taking to the field.
Looking back on that unremarkable night in the Shannon dressing room over 18 years ago with hindsight it could easily be described as the day that began the evolution of John Hayes from mere mortal to an almost indestructible hero.
It took a bit of work from many, but Shannon RFC is honoured to have played a considerable part in John’s emergence as a true giant of Irish rugby.
Gerry Thornley, in today’s Irish Times, wrote, ‘Heaven knows how Munster and Ireland would have coped throughout that decade without him, and for this they both owe a huge debt to Shannon.’
Perhaps they do owe a bit of recognition to our club, but we in turn owe an enormous debt to John Hayes, The Bull, The legend.
His likes will never be seen again. Enjoy your retirement John from everyone in Shannon RFC.