Superfan Hayes relishing euro challenge
October 1, 2012
Exeter skipper Tom Hayes will get his first taste of Heineken Cup rugby this season%]
Exeter Chiefs captain Tom Hayes will complete the journey from infatuated fan to starring role when he takes to the Heineken Cup stage for the first time later this month.
Hayes was just a teenager when he first came under the spell of Europe's premier club competition in his native Ireland just as Munster were taking their first steps to legendary status. His brother John would be a pivotal figure in the province's success-laden rise to greatness but Hayes would be drawn to the mecca that is their Thomond Park home long before his sibling had made his Munster bow.
"My memories of the Heineken Cup go all the way back to the start of it and hanging over the wall at Thomond Park for Munster's very first game against Swansea," he recalled at the official launch of this season's battle for European supremacy before underlining what a significant impression the occasion made on him. "It was November 1995 and Pat Murray scored the winning try under the crossbar."
Hayes, who unlike his brother has made his name in England as one of the driving forces behind the Chiefs' transformation from a national league outfit to Premiership powerhouses and now Heineken Cup newcomers, was intoxicated by the exciting prospect of European competition and the feeling has not dimmed.
"I was there right from the start and the Heineken Cup has been a huge thing for me ever since. It was such an exciting prospect for the Irish provinces back then because until then they only had each other to play against with a couple of games a year. It was all about the clubs back then and then suddenly it was about travelling all over Europe to play games.
"And for similar reasons it is an exciting prospect for Exeter. The Heineken Cup helped build some massive momentum and Munster's story is well-documented. I am certainly relishing the challenge and determined to give as good an account of myself as possible."
Two seasons of Amlin Challenge Cup rugby will have prepared the Chiefs to a certain extent for the step up, with a quarter-final exit at the hands of Stade Francais last year their best return, but they could not ask for a tougher assignment on their debut in the Heineken Cup.
Their campaign kicks off against Leinster, arguably the greatest Heineken Cup side ever thanks to the small matter of three titles in four years, with French giants Clermont Auvergne and the Scarlets, who also boast some impressive euro credentials, lying in wait down the road.
"We are dipping our toe into the Heineken Cup for the first time and it is a real baptism of fire for us but it is something we are massively excited about," insisted Hayes. "The club has worked hard to get here and we're certainly going to enjoy it and there is no point in being afraid. We didn't go into any of the Amlin games afraid, our way of approaching it is trying to impose ourselves on or opposition.
"We know the Heineken Cup is going to be a step up and a lot of people talk about games being as close as you can get to international rugby. There is a step up in intensity and it is just another challenge for us to face up to and see what we can do. I think we will enjoy it, be as positive as we can and see how far it takes us."
It is no doubt a huge challenge and unsurprisingly Hayes and his side are reluctant to set a goal - or at least one they are prepared to share. "It's very hard to set targets when you go into a pool like ours with three teams with a lot of Heineken Cup experience and say if you don't reach them say you are a failure."
Staying positive is something that Exeter have not struggled to do since stepping up to the top flight with a fifth-place finish in the Premiership last season further evidence they are on the right track. "I don't think we should look to change things too much," added Hayes. "We never really look to change what we do no matter what the challenge is, it is just a case of trying to improve and raise the intensity.
"I think it is just a case of trying to be as positive as we can tactically. We rarely look to just contain opponents because you will normally come unstuck so we try and give teams something to think about so they worry about us as much as we may worry about them."
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.