By Mark Stevens
Tom Hayes admits it is with great sadness that he has today been forced to retire from the professional game with immediate effect.
The 33-year-old Irishman has had to concede defeat in his battle to overcome a troublesome back injury and bows out having played 136 times for the Exeter Chiefs.
He will, however, be fondly remembered by the Sandy Park faithful as not only a fully-committed player, but also an inspired on-field leader who took the Devon club to new and unchartered waters.
The Limerick-born forward was not only the catalyst of Exeter’s famous promotion-winning side that got into the Aviva Premiership in 2010 when they defeated rivals Bristol over two legs, but has been their trusted voice during the first three years of their existence in both the higher echelons of English and European rugby.
“It’s been a great journey for me, but this is where I get off,” said Hayes. “Of course it’s sad to be going out like this and I’m obviously disappointed to be leaving behind the boys that I’ve been playing with over the last few years.
“Rugby has been my life for a long, long time now, but sometimes you have to listen to your body and what the medical people are telling you. For me, it’s been a privilege and an honour to be part of what we’ve done here at Exeter in the last few years. To be captain for a large part of that has been a great feeling and I consider myself very lucky to have gone through what I have.
“There have been some huge achievements along the way and lots of things that so many of us can be proud of. Obviously winning promotion into the Premiership is a highlight, as was getting into the Heineken Cup for the first time. To be playing sides like Clermont, Leinster and the Scarlets last year shows just how far we’ve come as a club.
“At the same time, I think staying up in the Premiership that first year and how we went about our business is probably the biggest highlight for me. Going up nobody gave us much of a chance, but inwardly we backed ourselves with a group of players, many of whom had come through the Championship that previous year, and we ended up finishing eighth.
“Was that a bigger achievement than promotion? I tend to think so because it was a real collective effort which we’ve since built on and just got stronger with.”
Brought to Devon initially by Graham Dawe at Plymouth Albion in 2005, Hayes spent three years at the Brickfields before he was persuaded to make the short journey up the A38 to a new home at Sandy Park.
Since then, life in the Westcountry has turned into ‘home from home’ for Hayes.
“It’s been brilliant and I certainly enjoy living here in Devon,” he added. “I’ve been here eight years now and I’ve experience huge changes in my life during that time. Not only have I got married to Rachel, but we’ve had two amazing kids here as well. Even without the rugby, lots of positives have happened and I’ve made so many close friends.”
On and off the field, the contribution of Hayes to the Exeter cause has to be highlighted and the man himself has been quick to pay tribute to those who have regularly turned out to lend their support to him on match-days.
“Obviously I achieved a lot with the players, but the coaches and all the staff here at the club have been equally as good. Working under the likes of Rob [Baxter], Ali [Hepher] and all the coaches I’ve learnt so much. By that I mean, it’s not just things in rugby where you learn, but I like the way they handle certain situations and that I think has rubbed off on a lot of us.
“Also the supporters have been fantastic throughout. It doesn’t matter where we play, they are always there in numbers and making themselves heard. I remember somebody came here a few years ago and said the atmosphere on game day is like that of Thomond Park on a Heineken Cup night. As a former Munsterman, I’d probably relate to that better than anyone, and yes there is an element of truth in that.
“Certainly our fans hit the right note each week and Sandy Park, when it’s full to the rafters, is a great place to play rugby. Looking back at things, I do think we’ve given them plenty to cheer about in recent times, so that’s something I’m also proud to take away with me.”
Whatever lies in store next for the popular lock, one thing for certain is this Irishman has written his name into Chiefs folklore forever more.