Sinead Kissane: 'From extra shoes to no tattoos, Irish plan to embrace Japanese way'
The 2015 Rugby World Cup in England was like a home away from home for the Ireland players. There was the familiar culture, food, currency. There was the similar weather, language, time zone.
In the players' day-to-day experience there was very little about that World Cup which involved any major cultural acclimatisation beyond being away together for five weeks at a high-pressure tournament.
But the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan will be a different kettle of sushi.
They may reside in the 'bubble' postcode but the uniqueness of Japanese culture means this will be a Rugby World Cup like no other for an Ireland squad.
It's probably unlikely that the IRFU will reef through the Genesis Report into the Republic of Ireland's 2002 FIFA World Cup experience in Japan and Korea and the dangers of taking in some R'n'R on a small island in the western pacific.
Nah, Ireland rugby has its own first-hand experience to rely on. Since the summer tour of Japan in 2017, Joe Schmidt's backroom team has been planning to make Ireland the best prepared on and off the pitch.
"I would definitely say this is our biggest operational project to date in Irish rugby," says Sinéad Bennett, operations executive for the Irish team.
Bennett and the team's performance nutritionist, Ruth Wood-Martin, are part of Schmidt's team that has created the kind of conditions at home which help players produce that level of performance against New Zealand last Saturday night.
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When it comes to nutrition, for example, they have dinner favourites and traditions which they religiously kept to before playing the world champions: beef cannelloni followed by apple custard and cream on Friday evening, plain chicken with mashed and sweet potato with rice pudding and pancakes for dinner three-and-a-half hours before the game on Saturday.
You see? There is no secret ingredient to beating the All Blacks.
So how can they replicate this winning environment 9,500km away in Japan? Because some foods are not available in Japan, and with the high cost of food there, the plan is for some foods and non-perishables to be shipped out in advance of the team's arrival.
Instead of bringing a chef, the IRFU might instead look for someone who has an understanding of the Japanese food culture. Wherever she works with the team, Wood-Martin always tries to source food locally as well for the players.
"I'm very keen that we embrace the (Japanese) culture. Sushi - absolutely I'll incorporate that into our menu plans so that it gives players and management alike the experience that we should be getting from being in Japan," Wood-Martin says.
"But at the end of the day, the players are there to perform and I need to make sure that they are comfortable with what they're eating. Food is very much a nourishing thing but there's also the aspect of food and mood. And it plays a bigger role than just fuelling them and recovering them."
The Ireland squad will have a translator and liaison officers with them for the duration of the Rugby World Cup. As Wood-Martin discovered when she went out to a small supermarket during their summer tour there last year, trying to wing it and work out what 'lactose-free milk' was in Japanese proved a little more difficult than expected.
"You just can understand nothing!" Wood-Martin laughs. "I go to supermarkets generally, and be it in a European city generally you can make something out from it but Japanese you just can't do it!"
On top of homework like learning line-out calls and switch-plays, the players will be encouraged to learn a few key Japanese words.
"We will have a translator, we will have liaison officers, but we will make an effort to learn off a few basic words as a matter of courtesy," Bennett says.
"I don't know if we'll be stringing together a lot of sentences but we'll definitely make an effort to get the basics down for sure."
There are a few other practices unique to Japanese culture that the Ireland players will be made aware of before they travel. Like covering up tattoos, which are seen as a taboo in the Land of the Rising Sun. "You have to respect that this is their culture and it's deeply ingrained like we have our own deeply ingrained nuances here," Bennett adds.
"In 2017, we taped them (tattoos) up. World Rugby are involved, so we'll have specific skins to cover up tattoos."
And there's the practice of wearing different shoes outdoors and indoors. It will mean more luggage with an extra two pairs of shoes for every player and member of management. And there's the logistics of it. One hotel that they will stay at does not allow outdoor shoes to touch the inside of the hotel.
It might seem negligible but Bennett is already wondering how she will form a shoe system for 50 or so guys getting off a bus, lining up in an orderly queue to change from their outdoor shoes to their indoor shoes in the most convenient manner possible. It's a small thing but everything gets thought out in advance.
The Ireland management team - between Schmidt, Ger Carmody (head of operations), Jason Cowman (strength and conditioning coach) and Paul Dean (team manager) have made three recces to Japan to identify and confirm hotels, training venues, facilities, everything they need to know on an operational basis.
Bennett and Wood-Martin will travel to Japan next May to comb through all the details again with the venues and hotels and build relationships with staff on the ground to make sure everything will be ready to go when the squad arrive in September.
The operations team will develop their own communications strategy on when and how to start drip-feeding players the relevant information so no player is blindsided by what to expect in Japan.
The conscientious nature of Japanese people seems like the perfect fit for a team led by Schmidt.
"I think it will be an exceptional World Cup because the Japanese are so hard-working and so detail-orientated and so meticulous," Bennett admits.
Wood-Martin believes fitting into the Japanese culture will go a long way to the team's overall success.
"It is a unique place, unique cultural traditions and we have to learn how to be adaptable to that."
There's a Japanese proverb which says 'the bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists'.
Far away from home, it might be an approach similar to this old Japanese saying which will also help bring out the very best in Schmidt's Ireland team.