Thursday 21 February 2019

Sinead Kissane: Life on tour at the World Cup is like one big speed-date

'I spoke briefly to Brian O'Driscoll in the Millennium Stadium after Ireland's win over Canada following his TV duty. And even he seemed to hope he'd made a good impression on the box'
'I spoke briefly to Brian O'Driscoll in the Millennium Stadium after Ireland's win over Canada following his TV duty. And even he seemed to hope he'd made a good impression on the box'
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

Hotel lifts are the equivalent of speed-dating. Not always. Just when you are staying in the same hotel as the Ireland rugby players during the World Cup.

You don't know who to expect as the lift doors get ready to ping open. You hope any initial awkwardness at bumping unexpectedly into a player will quickly upgrade to small talk and maybe a laugh.

And, most importantly, you've got around six seconds from when you step into the lift to give off the impression that you are not looking for any kind of insight into the Ireland team whatsoever.

Me looking for an insight? Never.

Soon after Joe Schmidt named his team to play Canada for the opening Cup pool game in Cardiff last week, the hotel lift doors opened and there was Devin Toner (slightly leaning over as it was a particularly small lift for all 6ft 10ins of him).

Devin had just been left out of the Ireland team and here was me, a reporter, walking into a lift with him in it.

Someone mention the word awkward?

Maybe it was because there was no space for the elephant in the room but being in tight quarters made avoiding the glaringly obvious impossible.

Small talk simply wasn't going to cut it so it was just easier to mention straight-out to Devin that I was sorry he missed out on the team.

The pressure for the remaining seconds in the lift instantly decompressed after that.

IRELAND TEAM FIXTURES 2019

Date / Time Teams

Claustrophobic

That moment in the lift sums up what this World Cup has felt like so far: instances of good pressure followed by a slow decompression. Everyone is out to make a good impression in a high-octane, claustrophobic environment. And that's just us in the media.

I spoke briefly to Brian O'Driscoll in the Millennium Stadium after Ireland's win over Canada following his TV duty. And even he seemed to hope he'd made a good impression on the box.

The fans' revelry in Cardiff seemed to make the city one big speed date last Saturday evening, with Japan's win over South Africa topping up the fun.

It's hard to imagine the Ireland players and management got much sleep with their team hotel just off the main street.

Which was why the move out to the English countryside must have felt like one deep exhale. The dial for the World Cup hype was cleverly turned down, with the squad staying in their very own hide-out at St George's Park this past week.

The number of media people covering Ireland, particularly at the top of the week, was reduced with the squad basing themselves in such a remote setting.

Nevertheless, security around the squad's training pitch at St George's Park this week was tight. There was a screen around the pitch and security men on site - in particular, one security man kept watch on the grassy knoll overlooking the training pitch.

With an airfield located nearby, the numerous light air-crafts seen flying over St George's Park during Ireland's stay would tickle even the most laid-back person's sense of paranoia.

I got a close-up view this past week of what it's like on tour for the players.

We stayed in the same kind of bedrooms in the Hilton Hotel at St George's Park as they did (Paul O'Connell had Peter Shilton on his bedroom wall. I had Paul Gascoigne looking down at me earlier this week. I decided it was best not to read too much into that).

I saw the tiny bedrooms the players had to share at the much-maligned hotel in Bordeaux in the 2007 World Cup. You won't ever hear similar complaints about the hotel facilities at the English FA's National Football Centre from the Ireland players.

It's strange to say but it felt like we were in a bubble while staying at St George's Park. When players or managers have said in the past that their team has been "in a bubble", it always came off to me as an easy cop-out from talking or facing up to any external issues.

But guess what? Bubbles actually do exist it seems.

And I don't mean it in the way the phone coverage at St George's Park was terrible. I watched the All-Ireland football final between Dublin and my home county Kerry at St George's Park last Sunday.

I never thought I would be able to put that awful defeat aside as quickly as I did, but because I was away from normality and away from my usual life at home, I have been able to switch off from it.

When I bumped into Ian Madigan (a Dub of course) the day after the All-Ireland final, he raised his arms in triumph. Even then it took me a second to realise what he was so happy about.

But this week has made it easier to understand that when players are in this kind of set-up it can be all-consuming. And you do have more control over how much you want to allow filter into your life 'in camp' from the external world.

As well as the easy-going nature of the squad around the hotel, it was interesting to see how they conducted themselves when they attended the official World Cup welcome ceremony in Burton-on-Trent (Ireland were the last of the 20 countries to have theirs).

Two days after a game and after a bit of travelling, I thought how much of a pain this must be for players to have to sit for over an hour in a draughty Town Hall listening to a town mayor blather on about the produce of a local town no-one on the touring party is likely ever to return to.

But I was wrong. Not about the Burton mayor part. No, he let loose a few clichés about the Irish and the breweries.

But not once did I see a player yawn or in any way ridicule a typically drawn-out ceremony. In fact they seem to enjoy it.

It ended with every single one of the players and members of the management team going up on stage to collect their RWC caps and participation medals.

Ireland have left the calm exterior of St George's Park behind them for the bright lights and showtime of London.

It feels like we're back in the pressurised zone of a hotel lift.

Stay on. I hope this lift will take Ireland all the way to the top.

Irish Independent

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