Carl Hayman’s arrival at Kingston Park is good news for Newcastle Falcons and New Zealand deer. In an exclusive interview, the candid Kiwi told Paul Gilder about his life.
OPUNAKE, a small coastal town on the south-west Taranaki coast, is, according to tourist information officials, proud to be The Home of the Big Wave.
The breakers that batter the sand-lined beaches have made this compact settlement on New Zealand’s North Island a renowned surfer’s paradise.
Given the splash his decision to relocate to Newcastle and the Guinness Premiership has made recently, it is perhaps fitting Opunake is also Carl Hayman’s home town.
“I’m sure people in New Zealand are a little surprised I’ve come here – to be honest, I’m a little surprised myself,” said the 28-year-old who, before the recent World Cup, decided to see where the tide would take him.
“I’d always felt I’d always stick in New Zealand, but earlier this year, with the World Cup coming up, I started to think about what it was I’d be staying for.
“This came up and I thought it was a chance to keep playing at a high standard and also to change scene. I’ve always lived in New Zealand and I’ve played professional rugby there for 10 or 11 years. It was time for a change. Newcastle Falcons have enabled me to do that and it has given me the chance to experience something different.”
Until a fortnight ago, the greatest upheaval Hayman had encountered had come in leaving behind Opunake (population 1,587) for Dunedin (population 114,700) on the South Island where, having first attended the renowned King’s High School, he played in the Super 14 for Highlanders. Travelling to Tyneside has proved a much greater undertaking.
“It has been daunting,” he said. “It’s a major thing to move to the other side of the world, to leave behind all the things you’ve known all your life.
“I had time to think about what it was going to be like over here and I did have one or two concerns. But once I’d got here, I realised it isn’t too dissimilar to the things I’ve been used to back home. I’ve settled in. It has been seamless.”
Holding court in the lavish bar in Kingston Park’s East Stand during the break between yesterday’s morning and afternoon training sessions, Hayman looked as though he is starting to feel at home in his surroundings.
He weighs 19 stone and is almost two metres tall (6ft 6¾in) and he is making his presence felt.
That he is considered world rugby’s finest tight-head prop means the reputation he has brought to the North-East is even more sizeable than his imposing frame.
His signing by the ambitious Falcons’ is a considerable coup which has created a global stir in the sport.
Hayman did not lack options, having decided to continue his career in Europe. So what persuaded him to choose the North-East?
Cynics might suggest a contract reported to have made the accomplished All Black the British game’s highest-paid player holds the answer. That cannot be ignored, although Hayman is adamant the reasons are otherwise.
“I didn’t know much about the North-East, but the more I spoke to people about the region, the more I realised it would suit me down to the ground,” said a man craving countryside. “There are much bigger cities in the UK I could have lived in, but Newcastle’s a small place and that appealed.
“It’s close to the coast and close to some great rural areas and that is what I’m used to.
“I can’t imagine living in London. I’ve never enjoyed it, two or three days there tends to do me. Having been brought up in the countryside, I’ve never imagined living somewhere so big.
“It like it here – I like that you can go out for a drive and that you don’t need to go too far to be immersed in the countryside. I’ve been out once or twice and discovered some nice places. I’ve got lost once or twice, though. Thank God for sat-nav.”
Hayman lists deer hunting and fishing among his passions. The latter is a sport he is keen to pursue in the UK, although the former might prove problematic.
“I love hunting,” said the former farmhand and his time before moving to Newcastle last month was spent removing the tails from lambs using a hot iron.
“The Government and the Department of Conservation in New Zealand encourage hunting because the deer are destroying the bush. I’m sure it’s more accessible over there than it is over here, although I’ll be looking into it.
“It might be something I have to give up for a time in order to have this experience on the other side of the world, but I’ll still be able to keep up the fishing.
“The boys here at Falcons are into fishing and they’ve invited me to go along. I haven’t been able to yet because there has been too much to organise. But at some stage I’d like to pursue the things I love doing.”
A man who became the 1,000th player to represent the All Blacks when he made his international debut in 2001 pointed out: “New Zealand is a fish bowl. It’s such a small place you can’t go far without people having a second look at you. It’s just how New Zealand is – it’s a rugby-mad place. I’ve enjoyed being anonymous over here for the last two weeks. I’ve been into town, I’ve been to the bank and been able to get some jobs done and it was nice.
“It has been great to be able to slip out and be a regular Joe, just cruising down the street and getting no hassle. It’s a huge difference and I hope it lasts. It might change once my face is plastered all over the newspaper. But I’ll make I the most of it until then.”
Hayman’s other highlights include taking in his first live football match, Newcastle United’s 1-1 draw against Arsenal seven days ago.
“That was a major highlight,” he said. “I wasn’t aware what sport means to people before I arrived here, but it’s becoming more clear as time passes. Sport is so important in people’s lives here and that’s great for me.”
Such has been his welcome, Hayman has no regrets about his decision and as he prepares to make his first appearance at Kingston Park against Connacht on Sunday, he is relishing the experience.
“I’m excited about it,” he said. “It’s going to be good to be playing at home and I’m looking forward to showing people what I can do.
People in New Zealand tried to persuade me not to leave, I suppose that’s understandable, but I needed a change and I’m glad that I’m here.” That the surprises have been minimal have helped Hayman to find his feet. “The weather has been a shock,” he said. “I’m surprised it has been so mild here, although the locals have told me that it’s about to change.
“The people couldn’t have been friendlier. I expected that because I’d heard about the Geordie people before I arrived. The lads at the club have been great.
“It’s always nerve-wracking going into a different dressing room but it has been great. To a certain extent, I think that players are similar the world over. That makes it easier.” Having compatriots Joe McDonnell and Brent Wilson in the dressing room has helped a player who sought advice from Ross Nesdale and Craig Newby, former Falcons, before making his decision.
“That was a big thing,” he said. “It’s easier to go somewhere if you know one or two people there, it makes a big difference. I spoke to Craig and he said nothing but good things about the place.
“He said he enjoyed it and, given a chance, he’d love to come back. To hear things like that helps you to make up your mind.”
Hayman’s contentment is clear and a man planning to embrace the North-East knows that, as well as playing Premiership rugby, Falcons coach John Fletcher has offered him a chance to enrich his life.
“It’s the same whatever it is you do,” he added. “If you do it for long enough, you crave a change and I’ve got that. I’ve got the chance to taste the Premiership and to have a look around the world while I’m here.
“I want to see some sights and I’ve got a chance to play some footy while I’m at it. I just can’t wait.”