Rugby: The last hurrah for Hay?

North Otago rugby stalwart Ross Hay relaxes with his family, son Charlie (17 months) and wife Jo,...
North Otago rugby stalwart Ross Hay relaxes with his family, son Charlie (17 months) and wife Jo, on their Herbert farm yesterday. Photo by David Bruce.
North Otago chases its fourth piece of silverware in eight years when it hosts the Meads Cup final on Saturday. Clinging on to the side of the scrum, as he has in the three previous finals, will be rangy flanker Ross Hay. He tells sports editor Hayden Meikle this might be his last dance in gold.

A kind man would describe Ross Hay, at least in those moments when he walks off a rugby field, as looking like he needs a little break.

A more severe observer might say he looks like something the cat dragged in.

Hay (30), the quintessential heartland hero, will put his famously lean body through the mincer one more time when he helps North Otago chase Meads Cup glory against Wanganui on Saturday.

He will chase every loose ball and make every tackle, and after 80 minutes of uncapped exertion, he will stagger to the sideline and, with shaking hands, embrace wife Jo and 17-month-old son Charlie.

And then, that could be it.

A career that started in 1999 and has included 125 games in the gold jersey could, finally, be over.

This will be your last game, "Bones", will it not?

"Hmmm. It's highly likely, I'd say. We'll talk about that later on."

He is a man of few words but Hay's performances have always spoken loudly for the grassroots values of loyalty and commitment.

The St Kevin's College old boy was rated one of the country's elite prospects in 1995, when he was chosen in the New Zealand Under-16 squad to play Australia.

The team included a couple of handy front-rowers called Carl Hayman and Tom Willis.

Ben Blair was at first five and Orene Ai'i at fullback.

And the openside flanker who kept Hay on the bench was a mobile young Aucklander called Keven Mealamu.

If Hay's rugby career did not quite take off to the extent some of those other players' did, it is nothing to be sniffed at.

He became one of only two men (Mike Mavor is the other) to chalk up 100 first-class appearances for North Otago, he captained his province and he celebrated victories in the old third division (2002), the Meads Cup (2007) and the Lochore Cup (2009).

Hay was named Heartland Championship player of the year in 2007, and a year later toured the United States with the Heartland XV.

He actually thought he had already retired.

His desire to play this year was dimming when new coach Barry Matthews suggested the chance to challenge Southland for the Ranfurly Shield was worth a comeback.

"I wasn't really that worried about coming back," Hay said.

"If it hadn't have been for the Shield, I probably would have retired. I played that and had a couple of calls from the coach."

Hay took his family on an overseas trip and then had a "sabbatical".

In France, like Dan Carter? Or the United States, like Ali Williams?

Not quite.

For Hay, time off meant working the lambing beat on his Herbert farm.

The local rumour mill suggested the North Otago rugby team had seen the last of its great loose forward, but the arm was twisted and the familiar streak was soon back on Centennial Park.

"It wasn't easy coming back. I didn't mind having a run for 30 minutes but 80 minutes has been a bit of a battle."

You won't hear Hay getting too cocky but he is confident North Otago is ready to face 2008 and 2009 champion Wanganui.

"We're pretty happy. There's always stuff to work on and we probably haven't had a complete performance yet.

"But once we do click, it will take quite a good team to beat us."

Hay said Matthews had brought a direct approach to the job and was working nicely with assistant Shane Carter and Glenn Moore, the former Highlanders coach, who is helping out his former team.

Finals week will be no glamorous affair for Hay - he'll be too busy dagging and drenching sheep to get carried away.


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