Sunday 25 September 2016

'I was in the right place at the right time, just like Ringo Starr'

Retired Irish rugby bagman Patrick ‘Rala’ O’Reilly may be hanging up his boots, he tells Emma Jane Hade, but he’s not finished working yet

Published 24/10/2015 | 02:30

Patrick 'Rala O'Reilly, former pitman with the Ireland rugby team. Picture credit; Damien Eagers
Patrick 'Rala O'Reilly, former pitman with the Ireland rugby team. Picture credit; Damien Eagers
Last weekend, saw Ireland exit the Rugby World Cup in the quarter-finals. But it also marked the retirement from the international set-up of two Irish legends, Paul O’Connell and ‘baggage master’ Rala

He has been described as the "heartbeat" of the international squad but the now retired bagman Patrick 'Rala' O'Reilly insists he only landed the job because he was "in the right place at the right time, like Ringo Starr".

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Last weekend, saw Ireland exit the Rugby World Cup in the quarter-finals. But it also marked the retirement from the international set-up of two Irish legends, Paul O'Connell and 'baggage master' Rala. The latter may be lesser known to the average Joe, but he has been at the centre of the squad for nearly two decades.

The Dublin native joined the Irish team as bagman in 1996 after a couple of years working with Leinster and his home club Terenure College. "I jumped at the chance when the IRFU asked me," he said.

"I was just lucky I was in the right place at the right time, like Ringo Starr was. There's loads of people who could've done the job.

"It has been a wonderful amazing journey that brought me to possibly every corner of the globe, every neck of the woods.

"I got to see places I'd never even heard of. I met amazing people," the 67-year-old said.

After decades of work, the Templeogue man plans to enjoy his time with his long-term partner Dixie.

And, the "seed has been planted" for another non-autobiographical book, he confided.

"I am officially finito. It felt very sad because we lost the match. And then this was secondary because the team was important. I am looking forward to it. I am not looking forward to finishing with the team. I've other things to do and I absolutely plan to stay working.

"I am the vice-president of Terenure College RFC, so I have lots of stuff to do. They have been very patient with me, so it is payback time."

Rala's room in the international camp became the place to hang out on the eve of matches.

A hub where cups of tea were shared, secrets were told, nerves were calmed and bonds were formed.

Many players - both current and past - have cited Rala as being one of their good friends, but Rala has never divulged who his favourite player is.

"Anyone who wears the green jersey, I would be attached to them. So they are my favourite players," he answered diplomatically.

He has witnessed lots of great moments, on and off the field, but the ones that stick out in his memory are player's final visits to his room before their retirement.

"(Brian O'Driscoll's last night) was a very sad night. It was absolutely one of the sadder nights, because I knew I wouldn't be seeing him in the green jersey again and he wouldn't be down around the room collecting his shorts and socks.

"Like Ronan (O'Gara), Denis (Leamy), Shaggy (Shane Horgan) and John (Hayes). They're all sad, you can't pick one," he adds.

Rala's bond with the players was so strong that he was the subject of many of their pranks, many of which are documented in his book.

"The Christmas tree one sticks out. I was turning on the Christmas lights in the Shelbourne hotel. So I went into hiding two hours before because I knew there would be something adrift," he said.

But the players soon found Rala's hide-out. "Within about 50 seconds they 'mummified' me in strapping and duvets but they left my finger free so I could turn on the light. They brought me down on a trolley and gently deposited me under the tree. Eventually security got me out of it with scissors."

Rala's keen to thank everyone for making his time so special-players past and present, management, fans - but they were keen to thank him as they bade him farewell.

"They very nicely gave me a collage of pictures and they also gave me a lovely gift," he said. "It's very hard to describe it. I have the rest of my life to look forward to. I have the pictures, and, as they say, every picture has a story."

Irish Independent

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