Rala was rolled into the lift, feet bound, arms pinned, mouth duct-taped . . .

Just one of the many tales in Ireland bag man Patrick “Rala” O’Reilly’s new book

Thu, Oct 24, 2013, 01:00

‘Enjoy all of this, guys, because blink and it will be over’. It was the eve of the Grand Slam match against Wales in the Millennium Stadium. We were garrisoned in the Hilton Hotel, our usual resting place in Cardiff. I was in my room and a few players were still knocking around, chatting. It was about 11pm. That’s when the trouble started.

Rory Best was re-enacting his version of the Spanish Inquisition. I can still hear him, demanding, ‘O’Reilly, where have you hidden those wine gums?’

Beside my bed, on a locker, was some duct tape I used to cover up logos on scrumcaps and for other bits and pieces.

Lying down, I was in a vulnerable position and that seemed to register with the players at the same time as it did with me. Inside two minutes, I was mummified in my duvet, feet bound, arms pinned, and duct tape over my mouth.

We not only have our own designated floor in the Hilton, but a security guard, who sits by the lift doors. He might have raised an eyebrow but that’s all he did as the players carried me to the lift, positioning me on my back on the floor, and then pressed all the buttons to ensure it stopped everywhere en route to the lobby. Even at that hour on a Friday night, there was a substantial crowd milling about in the foyer of the hotel.

I didn’t really have time to think about my predicament because the lift doors opened almost immediately one floor down. A man with a walking stick looked on in horror, dropped his cane and ran.

On another occasion, an auld one of about 90 looked at me and screamed – hardly surprising as the sight of a man bound in a duvet with tape over his mouth is not a common one in most luxury hotels.

Charted my progress
The players charted my progress and would periodically press the buttons on the lift again. The whole episode lasted about 15 minutes before they dragged me out and left me on the ground outside the lift on the fifth floor. Our security guard freed me.

I was telling the story to Brian O’Driscoll, pointing out he wasn’t one of the perpetrators, but he smiled and told me most of the players had watched the events from the balcony, roaring laughing.

I suppose that in some way it emphasised the mindset of the players, how relaxed they were facing into the biggest game of their careers. Ireland had only won one previous Grand Slam, in 1948, and this group were bidding to bridge that 61-year gap.

When you are at the epicentre of events, it can be difficult to sit back and look at the bigger picture. As bagman, I was cocooned in the responsibilities of my job and, in the build-up to Cardiff, I never really sat back and thought about the team winning a Grand Slam.

Maybe it’s because of previous disappointments – like in 2007 when the team under Eddie O’Sullivan had been on the cusp of winning a Slam – but if I’m honest, it’s more that my focus doesn’t deviate from the immediacy of the next match.

The backdrop to the 2009 Six Nations campaign smacked of a new adventure. Declan Kidney was presiding over his first championship as head coach.

France arrived in Croke Park, hoping to recreate their party-pooping exploits in 2007, but the Irish players weren’t about to afford them the same latitude. The boys won in convincing fashion, outscoring the French 30-21 with tries from Jamie Heaslip, Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy.

Ireland sustained that momentum in Rome with a second win.

There is a footnote to that match. The squad learned at the beginning of the week Dr Gary O’Driscoll had agreed to take up an offer from Arsenal to become their medical officer.

It was a great career move for him but, on a personal level, it was sad news. Gary had been an excellent friend for nearly six years. He was a sympathetic listener – a theory I tested during many a breakfast when we discussed all manner of feckology and he had to put up with me prattling on about Inishbofin.

Ireland’s third match was against England. They arrived at Croke Park more prepared than two years previously, but the boys managed to edge past them, 14-13.

O’Driscoll, not for the first time in his career, defied the laws of physics to squeeze into a gap that didn’t exist and burrow his way past two burly English pillars. I’ve watched the try time and again and still marvel at how he seized that day.

Murrayfield houses many graves to Irish ambition, so the players and management knew that maintaining the winning sequence would be no mere bagatelle and the match echoed that suspicion.

Heaslip’s try, following a break by Peter Stringer, might have been the defining moment on the scoreboard but, for me, the best moment in the match was the wonderful, try-saving tackle by Tommy Bowe that enabled Ireland’s victory.

The media’s Grand Slam treatises, which had started as a trickle after the England match, turned into a deluge. A small forest was cut down and devoted to Ireland’s date with destiny.

It would be disingenuous to suggest the management and squad were oblivious to what was at stake, but it certainly wasn’t a focal point of conversation. You can’t play a Saturday match on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday . . . you get the idea. It’s too mentally wearing, so players welcome distractions – and I’m often on the receiving end.

The week of the Welsh match started off in Dublin on a high note, literally. Christy Moore, a hero of mine, agreed to come to our hotel in Killiney at short notice and treat us to a gig. He’d done this in the past, but everyone appreciated the vintage show he put on. There was a little audience participation and a few of the players were given the opportunity to sing with him. The hour and a half flew by and everyone was in rare form as they retired for the night.

After such a good start, later in the week there followed what could have been one of the greatest catastrophes in Irish rugby.

It started innocently enough. Following a training session at the RDS, the players organised a race between the various members of the management. It was handicapped, based on age and infirmity rather than ability, so some started on the goal-line with others dotted at irregular intervals.

I began on the halfway line, a mere 50 metres from the finishing post.

Geordan Murphy was the official starter and, on his cue, I took off like rain on the wind. That was certainly the image I had in my own head. I was mentally composing my winning speech as I crossed the 22m line in a blur, not a soul in sight – then both my legs gave way. The pain was excruciating as I fell, landing on a couple of the match balls the Welsh Rugby Union had sent across for us to practise with. I was screaming in agony. The players didn’t know whether to laugh or be concerned, so they split into two groups.

Oxygen mask
I had an oxygen mask placed over my face as one or two suspected I’d suffered a heart attack. The only face I could see was ROG’s and I’m pretty sure his were tears of laughter. There was a good reason I hadn’t run that fast in 30 years.

In the meantime, forwards coach Gert Smal had claimed victory in the management race but unfortunately for him everyone was standing around me, still flat out on the ground.

Willie Bennett and Dave Revins, our masseurs, helped me to my feet and from the pitch before driving me back to the hotel. The boys worked on me for four days to ensure I didn’t miss the trip to Cardiff.

There was no way I was giving that up. To this day, I don’t know what made me collapse. The rest of the week was less fraught, the nocturnal lift-riding events of the Friday notwithstanding.

For some reason, Warren Gatland decided Wales would occupy the visitors’ dressing room for the deciding match. The day before the game, I asked for the Welsh paraphernalia that adorned the walls of the home changing room to be removed.

There had been a quiet focus and resolution in the camp in the build-up to the game. The lads were well aware what the match meant. It was there in black and white (newspapers) and Technicolour (television). It was impossible to get away from the hype.

Players are different animals when they’re in a changing room, different in the sense that some like to sit with their headphones on, others will chat quietly while some like to be alone with their thoughts. You get to know the personality types and their routines.

That day everything was in sync. Determination and focus are difficult to measure, but they were almost visible. You sense things and notice body language, you’re aware of a slight difference.

I’m not saying for one moment I knew Ireland were going to win but maybe it’s because I was more aware of what a victory would mean to Irish rugby that I became hypersensitive to my surroundings.

Maybe hindsight has provided me with a greater clarity of what it was like in the dressing room that day. When I remember it, I certainly mix in what players have said since about how they felt – but it’s not as if I was just sitting on a bench daydreaming about what might be. As I have said a million times, I have a small role to play but if I don’t do my job, I’m distracting the team and management, so I keep busy.

Obviously I knew what the day meant, but me getting agitated and pumped up wasn’t really going to help. You don’t need to be Charles Atlas to get the top off a bottle of mouthwash!

I usually stand in the tunnel outside our dressingroom as the players run out and watch them go past. For a brief moment, I felt very calm but that feeling certainly didn’t last and I remember being in a state of anxiety for most of the game.

I forced myself to watch Stephen Jones strike his last-gasp penalty. I like to think I know a bit about rugby. My initial reaction was the ball had risen too high, too quickly. I closed my eyes and when I opened them Geordan Murphy was waltzing down the in-goal area.

I found myself screaming at him to kick the ball out of play, which was slightly bizarre on the basis that he couldn’t possibly hear me over the deafening din of jubilant Irish supporters.

After the match, I offered my theory on the trajectory of Jones’ penalty to Mark Tainton, Ireland’s kicking coach – the politer way to phrase his response was to say I had been mistaken in my analysis.

I sat on a bench pitch-side for a few seconds after the final whistle. Slightly disorientated by the moment, I returned to the dressingroom, stuck a bit of Christy Moore on the sound system and sat there with my head in my hands, trying to comprehend what Drico and the boys had achieved.

Fever pitch
My good buddy Ger Carmody came to find me and drag me back to the pitch where the celebrations had reached fever pitch. In my 15th season as bagman to the Ireland team, I now had the privilege of witnessing a Grand Slam. I was completely aware of how fortunate I was to be standing there.

The celebrations continued in the dressingroom but at that point, I also began to realise there was plenty of work to be done. Ireland might have won a Grand Slam, but the van wouldn’t pack itself.

I was too happy to care. A primary source of that joy was remembering Ronan O’Gara’s drop goal. I was open-mouthed when it went between the posts. I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I did nothing. I stood and stared, probably sporting a silly grin. When I am on my deathbed, I want ROG to come and re-enact that moment. If he smashes a window in the re-creation, I’m hardly going to worry about it.

Everyone pitched in, as always, and it was soon all ready to go. I turned and looked back at the deserted changing room, the discarded tape, empty bottles, champagne, water and beer, the muck, the bandages, a traditional vista after a rugby international and, just for a second, wondered if it had all been a dream.

That evening, I didn’t touch a drop, contenting myself with chatting to various boys and girls in the lobby of our hotel.

It reminded me of the time I’d met London-Irish stalwart Kieran McCarthy in Limerick after a match. He introduced me to their bagman, a young lad, who happened to be having a few pints. Kieran asked me if I had any advice for the young fella so I turned to the lad and told him I’d knock the gargle on the head.

The following morning, the guy pops out of the lift, looking the worse for wear. Bags were flying round the place.

About 3am on that Sunday morning in Cardiff, I got a phone call to say I would be travelling back by plane with the players and management team. Luke Fitzgerald – I know he won’t mind me saying – forgot his number ones, so I lent him mine. This meant I had to do a little bit of ducking and diving because I was the only one on the plane in a tracksuit.

Smuggled one of my suits
I made a phone call home to Dixie, and with the help of our good friend Mikey Jordan, she smuggled one of my suits, which was similar in colour to the Ireland-issued ones, to a rendezvous point – a laneway at the back of the Mansion House.

There was a big celebration banquet for the players, management, their families and the IRFU staff in Killiney Castle that night.I was still abstemious in terms of alcohol when I was pushed up to the podium to make a speech. I spoke about all those players who hadn’t won a Grand Slam, and not wishing to single out individuals because I’d be there all night, concluding the sentence with “people like the Claw”. The whole place dissolved into laughter.

Earlier that afternoon, as we were travelling through Donnybrook on our way out to the team hotel, I heard Terenure College had won the Junior Cup. It was the perfect end to the weekend.

The next few days are a bit of a blur, although I do remember breaking a bottle of champagne belonging to Jamie Heaslip. He took it well. The squad were invited to Áras an Uachtaráin as guests of President Mary McAleese and husband Martin.

I sat at a round table in the far corner of the room alongside some of the management and backroom – Gert Smal, Brian Green, Les Kiss and Ruth Martin, our nutritionist. At one point, I got up to take Gert, who is South African, out to a corridor to show him the busts of former Ireland presidents and explained who they were and how they influenced Irish history.

When we got back to the table, I couldn’t get to my seat without asking several people to move. As there were two empty chairs nearer to me, I thought it would be easier to sit there. I noticed there was a glass of warm water with a slice of lemon in front of one, so I sat at the other. Suddenly, the president sat down beside me - she moves from table to table and because she has to do a lot of talking she drinks warm water and lemon. I was mortified and quickly tried to introduce everyone else.

She’s a lovely lady and we found a common interest in Inishbofin. I had my picture taken and it is one of my most treasured possessions. I couldn’t travel to Belfast where the squad met the Queen because I had a prior engagement in London – a meeting with several of my soon-to-be British and Irish Lions colleagues for the tour to South Africa which was only a couple of months away.

Tour Tales

One of my favourite stories about Ral (that’s what I call him) pre-dates my time in the Ireland squad. It goes back to a tour to South Africa in 1998. Denise Fanagan was the physio and, after one of the matches, discovered she had a ladder in her tights. Ral was appalled that he didn’t have a spare pair because he prided himself on being able to deal with most contingencies. From that point on, he has carried a spare pair of tights even though we haven’t had a female physio since Denise. I’d like to think that none of the players have requested them!

He portrayed this image of an innocent abroad . . . couldn’t boil an egg, cook a dinner, iron a shirt, but he’s sharp as a tack.

We affectionately refer to him as “the slug” because he moves as slow as a snail but is too lazy to carry a house on his back. I could tell you so many stories poking fun at him, but I’d hate to upset him. That’d be like getting a bollocking from Santa Claus.

The best story I know though is not my own. It’s from the time when Rala was interviewed for the Lions bagman job, and it sums him up.

At the end of the interview, the Lions’ representative asked if he had any questions. ‘No,’ he said. The representative, baffled, said, ‘Rala, we’ve been talking for the past 15 minutes about the job, and not once have you asked about the wage.’ Rala replied, ‘Oh, I thought I was doing it for free!’

Rala, A Life in Rugby, by Patrick O’Reilly (published by Hachette Ireland) is available from tomorrow, priced €14.99

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