Dylan Hayes was in the Hutt Valley two weeks ago wishing he was playing for the New Zealand under 20s at the Junior World Cup in Auckland. Today the man they call Whispers is settling into his new apartment in the French city of Grenoble, living his rugby dream after signing a three-year contract with the cashed-up Top 14 club.
"I've been here for just over a week and it's obviously gone pretty well because I've got a three-year contract, so it's all happened pretty fast," the 20-year-old said yesterday.
"It's pre-season over here, so it's just been gym work, skills, speed and a bit of fitness testing. Definitely it was nerve racking coming over here. I didn't know what to expect, but I just saw it as a huge opportunity and I was keen to jump on board and see how it turned out."
Hayes just might turn out to be the one that got away. The Hutt Old Boys Marist blindside and No 8, formerly a Hurricanes age grade representative, decided to explore the French connection after he narrowly missed out on making the New Zealand under 20s this season.
"If I'd made that team I would have definitely stayed in Wellington. I missed out, but another big opportunity opened up.
"My [Hutt] club-mate Otto Rasch is a former player for Grenoble and his agent came over [to Wellington] to have a look at the start of the season and asked if I'd be keen to go over to France and have a look. He got back to me once I missed out on the New Zealand under 20s and said Grenoble were keen to fly me over, pay for everything and trial me for a couple of weeks. He basically said if it all goes well then they will have a contract for you."
At 1.93m tall and closing in on 110kg, the former St Pats Silverstream first XV captain was clearly just what Grenoble were looking for and, after talking the offer through with his older brother, Black Sox pitcher Nik Hayes, Dylan signed.
"I'm on a development contract, which basically means the more games I play, the more money I earn," he said. "I'm starting on about the same as the top range of an ITM Cup contract in New Zealand, but it also includes a free apartment, a car and flights back home once a year, so it's not too bad."
That suggests somewhere in the vicinity of about $55,000 a year, the maximum provincial union retainer, but the long-term cost of such contracts to New Zealand rugby may be far greater.
Hayes' story highlights the incredible reach of France's wealthy clubs and Grenoble have been open and honest about their motives.
"Gift players, which is what they call guys on a development contract, are a really big trend in France. They are looking for new guys all the time," Hayes said. "I'd still like to come back to New Zealand and have a crack there, but the reason they signed me for three years is to qualify me as a French citizen."
Not only would that make him eligible for France's national rugby squads, but it would also mean he can play in the French Top 14 as a local player, therefore not taking one of the 15 or so spots allowed per squad for overseas imports.
Hayes isn't expecting to break into Grenoble's top side straight away and just wants to knuckle down, work hard and do his best to impress his new coaches.
"The pre-season I will train with the top side and get some game time when we head over to Argentina to play a few games. After that I'll play with the reserve side, but train with the top side and then it's basically trying to work my way into the top team."
Originally from Marlborough, Hayes boarded at St Pats Silverstream in his final school years, converting from centre to the loose forwards as rugby gradually took precedence over his first sporting love of softball.
His only previous overseas experience had been travelling to the United States with his brother, but he was already feeling comfortable in his new home, describing Grenoble as "a bigger version of Queenstown".
Hayes is living in an apartment with several other young overseas recruited players until his own apartment is ready. His contract stipulates he must learn to speak French, but for now there is no shortage of New Zealanders and Australians around the club.
Back at the Hutt Recreation Ground, Hayes' club coach Matt Lee has lost a key member of the side, but has no regrets.
"We figured he was either going to be back in a week, or in a year's time to see us in the off-season," Lee said.
"I said to him if you get three years in France, then maybe another three years somewhere then you will have made your money. Then you can always come back here and have a crack at Super Rugby, or by then you might be playing for France. The world's their oyster these days, really, isn't it."
HOBM had no problem with player agents talking to their players and Hayes was just the latest in a string of young men to secure overseas contracts via Wellington club rugby.
"Dylan talked to quite a few people about the move, but the whole coaching staff here was supportive, all his team-mates here were supportive. I just said, you want to be a professional footballer, it's what you've always wanted and at the moment professional rugby is more than just playing in New Zealand. You can play in France, Spain, England, wherever you want.
"It was the same a few years ago with [New Zealand sevens player] Leka Tupuola who went to Montpellier on a hope and he's still there living the dream. Another loose forward, Leo Auva'a, has just come back from Leinster and I believe he's signed another contract with an Italian club. [First five-eighth] Jon Bentley this year is at Gloucester after a couple of years with Cornish Pirates, which is great."
- The Dominion Post
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