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Hayes: The Club Game Helped Me Fall Back In Love With Rugby

Hayes: The Club Game Helped Me Fall Back In Love With Rugby

Limerick man Conor Hayes is pictured in action for St. Mary's College against UCC during a Division 1B game in October ©John Crothers Sports Photography

Life in Templeville Road could not have gotten off to a better start for Conor Hayes since his move from Young Munster to St. Mary’s College in the summer.

St. Mary’s have put together seven bonus point wins, taking the maximum 35 points available to them so far in Energia All-Ireland League Men’s Division 1B. They sit 11 points clear of Blackrock College, their closest challengers.

Hayes (24) made the move to the capital because of new work commitments. He is a current FE-1 candidate at Holmes Law, working in Commercial Litigation and Financial Lines.

He became one of the most consistent performers for Young Munster in the last couple of seasons, but the Limerick native is enjoying pastures new in Dublin where winning has been the only trend. He believes we still have not seen the best from St. Mary’s yet.

“We’re seven from seven but I think if you’re to ask anyone, we still haven’t put in that complete performance yet,” he told IrishRugby.ie. “The first 50 minutes of the Highfield game was probably the best we’ve played all season.

“When I sat down with (St. Mary’s head coach) Sean Cronin back in June, we talked about where the club wants to go with the players that are there and equally the coaching staff. I remember thinking this team has the talent to compete for a title in Division 1A.

“You’ve got players like Ronan Watters and Conor Dean here, all guys that wouldn’t look out of place in the RDS on a Friday night. There is so much talent in the AIL, especially here in Mary’s.

“So, in saying that, I’m not surprised we’ve started like we have. The players and the bond we have as a group makes us confident in what we’re aiming for. But it’s a competitive league with some great teams, so we have to keep building week on week.”

Choosing a new club can often be a difficult decision. Before making the leap, Hayes reached out to Conor Dean, whom he played with in Connacht. He is the son of Paul Dean, the former British and Irish Lion and ex-Ireland player and manager.

From there, he had a few meetings with Cronin, and those conversations convinced him that St. Mary’s was the right fit for him.

“A big part of that decision was my personal connection with Conor, and to be honest, I didn’t want to be playing against Young Munster (in Division 1A). I’m a Cookie and I always will be.

“A huge reason for the Mary’s decision came from sitting down with Sean and listening to his vision and plans for the club. They want to get back to 1A, it’s an historic club.

“I know lads that have made the move here in the past, and they have nothing but positive things to say about the club, so everything about the move just felt right for me,” explained the electric back-three specialist.

Hayes played all the way up through the Munster underage system, making his All-Ireland League debut with Young Munster  at the age of 18. He followed in the footsteps of his father, Mark, who was a hooker for the team in the 1990s.

Conor made the Ireland Under-20 squad back in 2018 before spending a season in the Connacht Academy, but it was Tom Clifford Park, Young Munster’s famed home ground, which he called home.

He spoke passionately about his love for Munsters and how the All-Ireland League helped him fall back in love with rugby.

It’s hard to put into words how important the club game is. From my own perspective, I came through Munster underage, then into Ireland U-18s, U-19s, U-20s, onto Connacht, then back to Young Munster. The usual pathway for someone trying to make it.

“I got released from Connacht during Covid, and I probably spent some time in the wilderness just trying to figure out how I was going to get back to enjoying rugby again because when it becomes your job, there is so much pressure and you just fall out of love with it.

“When I came back to Munsters, I really enjoyed myself again. I fell back in love with the club game and just the sport of rugby itself.”

Coming from Limerick, a city that lives and breathes the All-Ireland League, Hayes is well aware of the power of the community and how it inspires club teams both on and off the pitch. The infectious atmosphere around the Templeogue club has really helped him to settle in.

“The biggest thing I’ve found since moving here to Mary’s is that sense of community. We all genuinely get on so well. We want to go out and win together, we want to celebrate in the bar afterwards.

“On a Sunday, we have the inclusive rugby team, the St. Mary’s Stars. It gives people of different abilities the opportunity to participate in rugby with the community rallying behind them. It’s fantastic to be able to facilitate that.

“Our minis cheer us on as we come out (before kick-off), they play at half-time. Our Under-11s travelled to Limerick with us and played Garryowen at half-time. They come up to us asking for autographs after the games. The bar is packed with people after every match.

“Our President, Bobby O’Connor, has set up a LinkedIn page for the club where we can reach out to different members within the club for career advice and things like that. I’ve been really surprised how strong the community spirit is here.”

Irish Rugby TV will be broadcasting live from Templeville Road on Saturday afternoon as they feature the Division 1B top of the table clash between St. Mary’s and Blackrock.

Former Ireland international Cronin came in as St. Mary’s head coach at the start of 2022/23 season, but a new job in Munster Rugby has meant he is having to take a step back, while still being involved in the background.

Former Lansdowne head coach Mark McHugh, who has been backs coach this season at Templeville Road, has stepped up his responsibilities with the club’s senior squad.

Hayes admits that anything less than promotion would be disappointing considering the start they have made to the current campaign.

“Of course it would be disappointing,” he replied. “I think Mary’s have been knocking on the door for a few seasons now, but they’ve let things slip away in the second half of the season. We’ve put a massive emphasis on finishing strong.

“We have obviously got the dream start, seven bonus point wins, but it hasn’t come without scares. ‘Belvo were within a shout of winning the game at the weekend. We’re up against a very tough Blackrock side this Saturday.

“We know how cut-throat the league is, it’s so congested. If you have a run of three bad results you can sometimes go from first place to sixth, so we know how tough it is.

“We have to take it block by block, game by game, but we’ve given ourselves the best possible start. It’s up to us to keep building on these performances.

“We’ll have a target on our backs now, so we know we need to keep it going if we’re to secure promotion and win the league come the end of the season.”