After his sudden retirement a fortnight ago, Exeposé Sport caught up with former Exeter Chiefs captain and current university rugby coach, Tom Hayes
“Make the most of the time you’re on the training pitch. There’s always an opportunity to make yourself better no matter how big or small the thing is that you need to improve on. Don’t let the opportunities pass you by because you don’t get them back”.
The wise words of Tom Hayes, former Exeter Chiefs captain, for any aspiring rugby player.
Hayes, who led the Chiefs from Championship contenders to Premiership punchers, may seem a quiet character in person but has been inspirational figure for the Exeter side.
Unfortunately for him and his club, he has had to call time on his career, at the age of 33, due to ongoing back problems.
The Munster man, who is the brother of ex-Ireland and British & Irish Lions prop John Hayes, epitomises everything that the South West’s premier rugby club is about. Pride, passion and a die-hard attitude to teamwork above personal gains.
“I hope that team mates, first and foremost, and then opponents will respect me as a fella who played a good hard honest game and didn’t shirk anything, didn’t back away from anything but didn’t really overstep the mark either. I went about what I wanted to do as hard as I could for my team,” he said.
“I would hope the boys wouldn’t think I was someone who played for myself or went out on the pitch worrying about me. It was all about the team. It was the same with any team. I captained Shannon and captained Plymouth for a bit as well and I always really wanted the team to do as well as they could.
“It’s something that fellas need to recognise in a professional environment. You carry a responsibility for your team and your squad mates’ livelihoods as well as your own.
“You’re not just working to keep yourself in a job; if you come into the team slacking and you lose, you’re damaging the career of other fellas as well.
“That’s a responsibility I always carried with me. I wanted to do as well for my team mates as for myself.”
And this selfless attitude was personified in the way he bowed out of the game he loves.
After surgery on a troublesome back at the end of last season, coach Rob Baxter gave him all the time he needed to return to fight another round. But when Hayes came back to Sandy Park he struggled, by his own admission, to keep up with the pace and so the decision was taken to give Dean Mumm, capped 33 times for Australia, the armband for this year.
Having conceded the captaincy, Hayes only made a couple of appearances off the bench this season before deciding to call it a day two weeks ago.
“It wasn’t a complete shock to me when it happened, I kind of new it was on the cards. It is a fairly high-end, fine-tuned business and I wasn’t really able to cut it anymore.
If you’re not able to do your job, out the door you go” he laughed.
“I had kind of got to the stage where I wasn’t really enjoying myself because I just couldn’t commit to it. I was missing tackles or not getting to rucks that I could get to a while ago.
“I just didn’t have that spring in my step, the issues I had coming from my back were preventing me to do it. I wasn’t necessarily enjoying it so going back into the club and looking at the boys training, I don’t miss it because I know I couldn’t do it anymore.”
Listen to the full interview with Tom Hayes:
Despite the understated, softly spoken exterior, Hayes is a fighter and cites one of his biggest achievements as playing in the Heineken Cup, a competition he adored as a young Munster fan.
“I was at Munster’s very first Heineken Cup game in November 1995. We were playing Swansea at Thormond Park in Limerick. I remember exactly where I was in the crowd. The Heineken Cup just became a huge overwhelming odyssey, a journey that Munster were supposed to go on to try and win it. It was always the big show in town. So for me to play in that for Exeter was really a huge thing personally.”
Despite this, however, staying in the Premiership, having been promoted in 2010, was his crowning glory at the Chiefs.
“It was virtually the same team as we’d had [in the Championship]. We were looking at, by and large, the team that played in the final the year before, and we still managed to stay up” he said.
“Even though we didn’t get a trophy at the end of it and there wasn’t the whole euphoria that there was in getting promoted, staying up and getting 8th in the Premiership was a huge achievement.
“We managed to break the cycle of the team that goes down going straight back up. I think we had a lot more about us than people recognised.”
Hayes, who has been coaching EURFC’s 6th XV (The Fresh 2s) for two years now, tries to bring the ethos from Chiefs to his university side.
“They need to make sure they appreciate what they do for each other and how their work effects those around them. If everyone makes sure they are working hard for the team it adds a lot more tempo and pace to what you do, so they can really go and enjoy themselves” he said.
And if the Chiefs are going to break into the top four of the Premiership, their former captain feels that it will be down to attacking blocks of games and not letting attainable points slip.
“There’s definitely the talent there to get into the top four. The only two games we’ve lost this year have been to Northampton and Leicester. Two of the teams that have been in the top four all of the time.
“It’s definitely something we can build towards. Obviously I know how things operate in there and it hasn’t been spoken about. It’s not like we’re sitting down and saying ‘if we don’t make the top four our season’s a failure’. We look more short term than that.
“Last year we finished 10 points behind Northampton and there were some games where we definitely let some league points slip. London Welsh away, we lost by a couple of points there where we should have won. Sale away was another three points lost, that’s six. We let bonus point wins slip against Wasps and Worcester, those opportunities add up at the end of the season. While it wasn’t a million miles away for us last year, it comes down to the fact that the top teams take those chances and we didn’t.”
Finally, with the monumental challenge of Toulon just around the corner how would Hayes inspire the team?
“It’s where you really want to be so enjoy it, relish it and let everything out. Be as good as you can be, be what you are, that’s something the boys have definitely gone and done.
“With the likes of Toulon and Clermont who have so much money to spend they have quality all the way across the team. You have to stop one to 15, you have to stop the whole lot of them!
“That’s where it comes down to a real cohesive team effort. Everybody has to do their job, you just have to go out and back yourself to do your absolute best and that’s all you can do really.”
The Exeter Chiefs will find it hard to unearth such an equally humble, dogged and admirable character as Tom Hayes in the years to come.
Metaphorically and physically, they are big boots to fill.
Will Kelleher, Sport Editorbookmark me