Wednesday 18 October 2017

Chatting to BOD, Heaslip's techno and Guinness cake for King of Tonga

The Irish rugby team's kitman and confidant tells Kim Bielenberg about life behind the scenes with Ireland's biggest rugby superstars

Bread and butter: Rala chats about all things rugby with Kim Bielenberg in Toddy’s Brasserie. Photo: Martin Maher
Bread and butter: Rala chats about all things rugby with Kim Bielenberg in Toddy’s Brasserie. Photo: Martin Maher
All aboard: Rala gives Ireland's Tomás O'Leary a lift in a golf buggy during a training session in 2010. DAVID MAHER/SPORTSFILE
Always ready and willing to answer Ireland’s call: Rala with the essentials that he packs into his van

When I meet him he is sitting quietly and inconspicuously in the lobby of Dublin's Gresham Hotel. Patrick O'Reilly, known by all and sundry in the rugby fraternity as 'Rala', is hardly a household name, but one gets the sense that he may be the glue that holds the Irish team together.

He greets me warmly, and we sit down for lunch in Toddy's Brasserie in the Gresham. Rala is the Irish team's kitman, the bagman-in-chief, but his role seems to run much deeper than that, as a soothing and calming presence in the camp. Now he has written an autobiography.

The players have a ritual on a Friday night before internationals when they pick up their kit from him and stop to chat in his room.

Donncha O'Callaghan is usually the first and Brian O'Driscoll the last.

O'Driscoll usually comes in at about 11pm, and describes the scene in a contribution to the book: "It's a chance to chat to Rala about something and nothing, listen to a story or nibble away on a piece of chocolate. That time in his company is very dear to me."

When I ask Rala about this as he tucks into turkey and ham with cranberry sauce, he brushes it aside: "Players like to have their rituals. I have learnt in life. No person is the same."

So how did he get his distinctive name? Rugby folk keep nicknames way beyond their schoolboy years: Drico, ROG, Claw (Peter Clohessy), and Hendo (Rob Henderson) are just some that leap out from his book.

He tells me he was dubbed Rala when he tried to spell his name in Irish on the blackboard at Terenure College. He could only manage R-A-L-A, and then stopped. The name has stuck ever since.

When we meet, Rala has just finished one of his busiest times of the year. The players were in camp for the autumn series of internationals, culminating in the gut-wrenching last-gasp defeat against the All Blacks.

He almost talks of the match like a bereavement: "I would not like to speak about it really." But then he becomes quite emotional. "I was heartbroken and gutted for the boys. It was as if my whole world was taken away.

"Some of the older players had spent their entire careers trying to beat the All Blacks."

If anybody has come close to being a fly on the wall in the Irish camp over the past two decades it is Rala. Since 1994, he has seen well-known coaches -- Warren Gatland, Eddie O'Sullivan and Declan Kidney -- come and go.

He has experienced the glories and the disappointments, and seen the beginning and end of distinguished careers.

"Players are very lucky if they get five years on the team. Some might come in for two or three games and that is it."

He is notorious as the man who wants to be prepared for any eventuality on tour with the team. He knows, for example, that while the Munster players insist on Barry's Tea, Leinster's Gordon D'arcy prefers camomile.

Rala is almost always prepared. On one tour to South Africa in 1998, the team's physio Denise Fanagan discovered she had a ladder in her tights.

Rala was appalled that he didn't have a spare pair, and now always carries tights with him.

"I haven't had to give them to anybody yet," he tells me as he eagerly continues with his turkey and ham.

Such is his consideration that he once travelled on tour down under with a Guinness Cake, which he had bought on Grafton Street as a gift for the King of Tonga. Ireland were playing in Tonga as part of the tour, but sadly the cake was seized in New Zealand customs, and he never got to present it to the monarch.

Rala typically spends a week in camp with the team for an international match, staying at Carton House in Co Kildare, where the team also trains.

A look inside Rala's van offers an insight into the life of the team: tackle shields, a scrum machine, the video analyst's ladder, an ice bucket, Powerade, a fruit basket, stud boxes, kicking tees, hand wax (for Jamie Heaslip), mouth wash (for Keith Earls) and banana cake (for assistant coach Les Kiss).

Rala draws up the itinerary sheets for the players, and usually adds a homespun, inspiring quote at the bottom. One of his favourites is: "Even a cat can look at a king."

It is this kind of touch that perhaps makes him more than just a kitman.

As well as being the master bagman, Rala seems to be the musical impresario of the team, carrying 7,000 songs on his iPod.

He tells me how 15 years ago he rang up Christy Moore and asked him to sing for the team, and he has being do so ever since on and off.

The balladeer was in the heart of the camp singing 'Ride On' in the week before Ireland's Grand Slam victory against Wales.

"I'm a great admirer of Christy's as well as Mary Black and the Beatles.

"I have a running battle with Jamie Heaslip and Cian Healy about the music. I would be putting on the Fureys and they would be putting on some techno noise."

At training sessions at Carton House, as well as putting out cones and balls, he sets up a tent known as Rala's Café with drinks, fruit tea, coffee, and soup -- as well as his music. He is very particular that the tables should have a white linen table cloth.

Although training may be tough and the matches punishing on the body, at times the life of a professional rugby player must seem pampered and programmed to every last minute.

When the team arrives an hour-and-a-half before kick off on match day, they'll find their jerseys hanging up and their kits neatly folded, along with their "anthem tops", and towels.

Rala, who has also worked as kitman on Lions tours, knows their particular likes.

"I'd always have put a red apple with John Hayes' kit. Stephen Jones (the Welsh player and Lion) likes a small tub of wine gums."

He has been known to leave out special treats for players in hotel rooms.

Brian O'Driscoll's special preference was for Coke and chocolate, until he decided that they did not fit in with the strict dietary requirements of a professional.

Rala's mutual affection for the players shines out from the book, and he sometimes seems like a loyal parent who does not want to express a preference for any of his children.

He says he is more interested in the players than the results, but the triumphs of the team still stand out in his mind.

He was there the day Ireland won its Grand Slam in Cardiff in 2009, and when we played England on an historic day at Croke Park in 2007.

"The atmosphere that day in Croke Park was electric. If you touched a wall in the dressing room you would have got a shock."

So what inspired him to write a book (with his ghost writer John O'Sullivan)?

"I love books myself, particularly stories by Liam O'Flaherty and The Island Man by Tomas O Crohan.

"Tomas O Crohan wondered how his life could make a book, but he was told just to tell his story. I wouldn't compare myself to him, but that's what I have tried to do."

He says away from the rucking and the mauling, some of the players are remarkably bookish.

He describes how in the early part of his career 'Paulie' (Paul O'Connell) would sit at the end of his bed ensconced in a novel while others played cards, were enshrouded in smoke and surrounded by discarded sandwich trays and coffee cups.

So what does he feel players need to survive in the modern game? Rala ponders the question over apple crumble: "You need heart, discipline and a lot of sweat, but I am not the expert."

He may not regard himself as the expert, and he does not want to be regarded as anything more than the humble bagman, but you get the feeling that Rala has played an essential role in the successes of the Irish team over the past 20 years.

 

A life in brief

 

BORN Inchicore, Dublin on April 15, 1948 -- the same year as Ireland's famous rugby grand slam.

FAMILY One of Paddy and Helen O'Reilly's nine children. Moved at a young age to the southside suburb of Templeogue. His dad was a central heating and plumbing contractor. He now lives in Dublin with his partner, Dixie.

EDUCATION Went to school near his home at the famous rugby nursery, Terenure College.

CAREER Worked briefly in a shampoo factory putting caps on bottles before he became a salesman for Colet products. Played rugby with Terenure College Rugby Club before becoming a kitman. At one stage he was bagman for Terenure, Leinster and Ireland at the same time. Has been with the Irish team for 19 years and has also travelled on two Lions tours.

LIKES Irish literature, particularly stories by Liam O'Flaherty and Tomás O Crohan. Christy Moore, pictured, the Fureys and the Beatles.

Irish Independent

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