Thursday 15 November 2018

Sinead Kissane: Backroom staff help to drive Irish 'one-for-all approach'

It's not just the front-line coaches that make Joe Schmidt's team tick; there are others with vital roles in the set-up

Key man: Will Bennett. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Key man: Will Bennett. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

There was a moment in the 50th minute of Ireland's game with England last Saturday when the Ireland coaches reacted in a way we have rarely, if ever, seen during a game. Ireland had just won a penalty and it was followed by a shot on TV of Joe Schmidt, Andy Farrell and analyst Vinny Hammond cheering the players. Their response was like the ultimate vindication that this team was producing something very special.

"We won that scrum penalty and I think when you win a scrum penalty in a big game it gives a psychological lift to the whole team. We don't celebrate a whole lot but I think everyone caught the bug for that one," Hammond recalls.

"We probably showed a little bit more emotion because we were in the thick of the crowd."

Hammond and Mervyn Murphy are the analysts on Schmidt's team. Hammond's job includes analysing defence with Farrell and on match-day he's tied to a laptop, delivering key information to the coaches. Sitting directly behind him last Saturday was his boss.

"Joe's like an air traffic controller because he's trying to manage the whole macro picture of what's going on with the team and bench.

"The communication lines on those match-days for Joe to Merv and with Joe down to Richie (Murphy) are very clear and concise," Hammond adds.

This Grand Slam was won in snowy conditions at Twickenham but the starting point was a training week in the sun in Spain seven weeks previously. For the first time under Schmidt, the team went abroad for a training camp.

"That pre-camp was excellent because we got out to a bit of sun and the lads got into the sea," says Willie Bennett, who is one of the masseurs for the team along with David Revins and Michael Thompson.

"The recovery was huge for us through the campaign this time and we were able to use the Mediterranean sea and the salt water for recovery".

In an environment which currently includes players who've never lost in an Ireland jersey is the presence of Bennett who's been working with the squad since 1995 - the year before James Ryan was born.

"I remember back to the days when we won one game in every Six Nations and we celebrated well when we won it because that's all we won!" Bennett smiles. "I remember those years very well, you can't forget".

As technical as this Ireland team is, things like tradition aren't forgotten. Christy Moore started doing sing-songs with Ireland squads around 15 years ago. Five days before the finale against England, Moore was back at Carton House and "brought a little bit of spirit with him," according to Bennett. Schmidt also appreciates the value of heritage.

A big picture of Newgrange goes up on the wall of the team-room everywhere the squad stay after they visited the site a few years ago. On the wall of their team-room in London last week were also specific action shots Schmidt had chosen in the build-up to the England game. There was also another constant on the wall: the team itinerary.

The team itinerary is also known as 'the bible' to Sinéad Bennett, who recently became National Team Operations Executive (she also previously worked with the Ireland women's team when they won the Grand Slam in 2013).

Bennett started work on the master schedule for Ireland for this Six Nations back in October.

When the players were in camp, they got an email every evening around 7pm with every single hour of the following day mapped out for them with details of where they were expected to be, from breakfast, to training, to lunch, to unit meetings, to dinner at 7pm.

"The planning is meticulous and I think that's obviously a big part of how Joe builds things," says Bennett, who laughed when she got a message from one of the squad last Monday asking what time they would get their itinerary even though the Six Nations was over. "It enables people to be incredibly organised with their time."

Attention to detail and a drive for perfection has long been the new normal in Ireland camp.

"Simon (Easterby, forwards coach) could put six hours into delivering a two-minute video. He's so precise in his delivery, same with Faz (Andy Farrell)," Hammond says.

"Irish teams used to rely on the passion and the emotion to win big games but I think now we trust our rugby to do it and that's far more stable."

When Ireland won the Six Nations after the penultimate round, and with a guaranteed trophy presentation a week later in Twickenham, Sinéad Bennett and her colleagues got in touch with the players' partners and wives to also help them with their plans in getting to the game.

"You see what these players do on the pitch, you see the hours, the human resolve to make this machine work. "You just want to do everything you can for these people," Bennett adds.

"The players are the centre of everything we do," Hammond says.

"That would be a compliment to Joe that the management team he's assembled are not only world class but the camaraderie between them and the ability for guys to jump in.

"You'd see Willie Bennett drying footballs in training, everyone's stepping out of their lane to help with the bigger picture. We don't have those set demarcation lines, it's very much a one-for-all approach."

Bennett says his favourite part of match-week is when the backroom staff link arms and stand opposite the players for the national anthems. It was special at Twickenham.

"They're all fired up ready to go and we're fired up looking at them ready to go as well. The whole thing just lifts and takes off. When you have the preparation put in for that, you're happy that they can be out there in the best form that they can be in," Bennett says.

It was that one-for-all approach that helped deliver a very special day last Saturday.

Irish Independent

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