After 14 years at the sharp end of the grunt trade for province and country, ‘The Bull’ has been put out to graze. Wherever John Hayes goes in the weeks and months to come, the roar of the crowd will still be ringing in his ears.
The ovation they gave him at Thomond Park on Boxing Day when he left the stage for the last time an hour into the home win over Connacht brought the final curtain down in suitable fashion. Pavarotti in full cry at La Scala would have been hard pushed to generate a more thunderous sound.
His place in the Munster pantheon long assured, Hayes emerged from the dressing room to find the stadium bedecked with banners in his honour. One said it all: ‘Go on Bull. Tis Your Field.’
For the most modest of Munster men, the rapturous entrance as captain for the night and a still more rapturous exit one hour later was no more than he deserved. After a century of Tests for Ireland and a European century amidst an imposing total of 217 appearances for Munster, Hayes has taken his final bow at the grand old age of 38.
In retiring to the family farm in Co. Limerick, he has, in the finest showbiz tradition, left them shouting for more. An otherwise routine home win ensures that he leaves the Red Army on the march at home and abroad, within striking distance of the top two in the RaboDirect Pro 12 and the last eight of the European Cup.
“It’s been a great 14 years,” he said. “I didn’t expect the reception I got but I was very conscious that, first and foremost, we had to win the game. It would have been a bit of a damp squib otherwise.”
As one venerable front row forward hung up his boots, another was hurling himself around on the opposite side of the Irish Sea like a spring lamb. Mefin Davies, the Ospreys’ second-half substitute hooker in their local derby against the Scarlets in Llanelli, is already into his 40th year.
The Welsh-speaker whose linguistic skills survived spells across the border at Gloucester and Leicester has been around for so long that he has outlived one of his previous clubs, the late, lamented Celtic Warriors.
While the amalgamation of Bridgend and Pontypridd bit the dust several years ago, Davies is still good enough to keep going on and on and on.
His late arrival into the maelstrom at Parc y Scarlets failed to salvage the bare minimum of a losing bonus point for the Ospreys from only their second RaboDirect Pro 12 defeat of the season.
After all but wiping a 13-point deficit, they ended up empty-handed as the Scarlets beat their local rivals for the first time since December 2007 in hauling themselves into the top six play-off zone.
A crowd of almost 15,000 added up to a competition record for The Sospans and the biggest anywhere in Wales this season for any of their four regions.
The Ospreys, unable to generate more than 7,000 for their Heineken Cup tie against Saracens before Christmas, will surely draw a five-figure gate when the Cardiff Blues venture into the Liberty Stadium on New Year’s Day.
The prospect of the prodigal son returning home ought to give the local box-office an overdue boost. Gavin Henson negotiated his Blues’ debut last week without mishap, his first match since breaking a wrist during Wales’ pre-World Cup match against England in August.
Henson, of course, had been in on the ground floor of the Ospreys, their creation made possible by the improbable amalgamation of the warring tribes of Neath and Swansea.
Since taking a long sabbatical after his last appearance for the region, an Anglo-Welsh Cup semi-final against Gloucester in March 2009, Henson opted to leave Wales in the belief that the grass might have been greener first in England, then in France.
Despite abortive come-backs with Saracens and Toulon, Wales were only too happy to reclaim him last summer and there can be little doubt he would have gone to New Zealand but for the unlucky break against England.
The prospect of Henson fit and firing in time for the Six Nations will make Sunday’s Welsh derby a must for national coach Warren Gatland.
No sooner had the dust settled on a defeat which left the Ospreys six points adrift of Leinster in second place than they were confirming a BBC Wales report of Scott Johnson’s departure.
The Australian, who ran Wales on a caretaker basis following Mike Ruddock’s abrupt resignation before taking charge of the American Eagles, will leave as director of rugby with effect from the end of the season.
By then the Ospreys will either have regained the title they won at Leinster’s expense in Dublin in May 2010 or been elbowed out of the final reckoning as they were by Munster at the penultimate hurdle last season.
Leinster, one point ahead of their Welsh rivals before Christmas, go into the last weekend of the year six clear and unbeaten in 12 matches since mid-September.
While they squeezed another full house into the RDS for the six-try win over Ulster, Edinburgh and the Glasgow Warriors drew more than 13,000 into Murrayfield, drew being the operative word.
The Warriors have now drawn three of their last four games – at Newport (14-14 against the Dragons) at Montpellier (13-13) in the Heineken Cup and in Edinburgh (23-23).
The second leg of the seasonal Scottish double, on New Year’s Day, promises to be another close affair with the potential to make the most of Firhill’s 10,000 capacity.