There is a name that sits in the pantheon of Leinster rugby legends that the Irish rugby public do not know. Yet every Leinster player over the past 30 years would have that name alongside the club’s greats, such as Brian O’Driscoll, Denis Hickie and Johnny Sexton.
That is the name of Leinster’s baggage master and kit man, Johnny O’Hagan.
To suggest that ‘Hago’ is just a kit man is like saying the wonderful woman who brought you into this world is just a mother.
Father confessor, supreme organiser, master of the keys, the sole keeper of assets, secrets and club lore. Within Leinster, Johnny O’Hagan is both an institution and a legend.
From rookie players, to superstars and coaches, we were all treated with equal suspicion of wanting extra gear that we were not entitled to
From the days of the late 20th century, when on an away trip to Italy a few Leinster players (names withheld to protect the guilty) were, a few sheets to the wind and encountered an overzealous police officer, to lifting the Heineken Cup multiple times, O’Hagan links generations of Leinster players. Through a lens of blue and gold, Johnny has seen it all.
From the first Celtic League win in 2001, through Magners League trophies, on to the four massive Heineken Cups triumphs, and then finally to last October’s Pro14 win. Hago has faithfully prepared Leinster teams on every day the club has ever lifted a trophy.
That is a truly remarkable achievement.
Johnny himself was a highly talented sportsman. He was a long term cricketer with Merrion CC. The quality of the soccer he played with Shelbourne earned him a trial with Glasgow Celtic. But it was his enjoyment of rugby as a fleet footed centre with Bective Rangers that led him to serve Leinster’s finest for three decades.
When I first met Johnny in 1999, Leinster were a nomadic team with no home training ground. Training pitches were begged and borrowed from schools like St Andrew’s in Booterstown and Old Belvedere. The situation is incomparable to Leinster’s current modern training facilities at UCD. It is hard to believe, but in those days, literally, all of Leinster’s worldly possessions were in the back of Johnny’s van.
Before training its contents would be meticulously laid out and a table set up by the sideline and bedecked with every conceivable piece of apparatus a player might require. Energy supplements, replacement studs, cotton buds, spanners, mouth guards, dental floss, contact lens cleaning fluid, plus the compulsory packet of chocolate and orange Jaffa biscuits. Johnny had every base covered and then some. Through rain, hail, sleet and sunshine, he was in command of this universe.
Gazing up at the heavens and softly singing Frank Sinatra’s ‘Fly me to the moon’, he would casually point at the tiny dot of a jet leaving its contrail above Dublin at 40,000 feet. “That,” he would pontificate, “is an Airbus 380. It’s the 12.05 Air France from Paris to JFK in New York. It’s running 10 minutes late.”
Glancing up at the speck in the sky and walking face first into Johnny’s web, the unsuspecting rookie would ask, “How do you know that?”
“Because,” smiled Johnny O’Hagan, “I know everything.”
“ . . . Fly me to the moon, let me play among the stars . . . ”
On one memorable evening in Belfast in the early 2000s, after a hard fought victory at Ravenhill, the Leinster team had returned to their hotel. Shortly after we all noticed the flashing lights of fire trucks and police cars illuminating the area outside the hotel. Johnny’s gear van, which he drove to every match, was ablaze. The Leinster logo on his van had been targeted, firebombed and gutted. A cowardly act.
Later that night, after the pandemonium had subsided, I spied Johnny at the hotel bar. His traditional glass of cider and ice casually in hand, with a wry smile on his face. I asked why a man who had just had his truck vandalised seemed so unusually content? He took another sip from his cider and smiled: “We won the game. I had already taken the jersey bags out of the van and up to my room, plus the van was fully insured. So I get a new one. I would say that’s a 3-0 win.”
Johnny had no favourites. From rookie players, to superstars and coaches, we were all treated with equal suspicion of wanting extra gear that we were not entitled to. And if the truth be told, Johnny had us all pegged. We were guilty as charged. Rugby players, even old ones, lust after kit.
Johnny’s storage area under the grandstand at Donnybrook was referred to as the ‘Aladdin’s Cave’. It was one of Ireland’s most secure locations, as no human, apart from Johnny, was known to have ever crossed its threshold.
The coaches would fantasise about the untold rugby treasures that we imagined must be piled in its mysterious depths. Despite rumours that Elvis and Lord Lucan were hiding in there, underneath the lost Ark of the Covenant, the devious plans of generations of Leinster players to crack into Hago’s stash all failed to materialise and like the great kit man he is, not a single sock or “stocking” as Johnny calls them, was ever lost.
At the end of this season, Johnny is stepping down from his role with Leinster. He will hand the keys of Leinster’s kingdom onto another. Someone who will drive the team van to every away game across Europe. Someone who will have every one of the thousands of items of equipment and clothing labelled, initialled, sized, distributed and accounted for. Someone who will have the changing room decked out in Leinster colours, fully equipped, with nothing left to chance, so the players have the most positive of environments to perform in. Someone who will stand loyally on the sidelines of a thousand games, supporting the players and coaches as they prepare for the stresses of competition.
Someone the entire organisation will respect, because if they follow in Johnny’s footsteps they will become the heart and soul of the great club. They will grow into someone who is simply a great teammate and old friend.
One thing is for sure, like O’Driscoll, Hickie and Sexton, there will only ever be one Johnny O’Hagan.