Holi Smith operating at a different level to ensure Republic’s affairs run smoothly

‘If you want to work hands-on in high performance sport then there is no better job’

Holi Smith, Republic of Ireland operations manager:  ‘I love being a woman in my environment. I am the only woman. I am proud of it, but it is not even a thing. You couldn’t get anyone less ‘FAI’ than me but I was welcomed with open arms.”   Photograph:  Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Holi Smith, Republic of Ireland operations manager: ‘I love being a woman in my environment. I am the only woman. I am proud of it, but it is not even a thing. You couldn’t get anyone less ‘FAI’ than me but I was welcomed with open arms.” Photograph: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

 

Sprinkle a killer virus into the logistical labyrinth of international football operations and it was inevitable that Holi Smith’s name would tumble into the public domain.

“The pressure on the team is never the pressure I would feel,” the Welsh woman told The Irish Times in a Rathmines café last week, “but the more there is pressure on the team the more everything we do as a backroom becomes important. You cannot give any reason, in the grand scheme of things, for why we lose.”

Problems, some big some small, are a daily occurrence. Take the Georgia Football Federation refusing to associate Irish football with its UK neighbours. As the opening women’s World Cup qualifier in Tbilisi loomed last September, Uefa refused to contemplate an alternative arrangement despite 22 of Vera Pauw’s squad being unavailable due to quarantine rules on return to England.

“It was difficult but I must pay a huge compliment to Holi Smith, ” said Pauw. “She has negotiated in a way that’s incredible.”

The fixture is rescheduled for June 2022 because the FAI’s operations manager refused to blink.

“We just couldn’t accept it,” said Smith. “It went on so long that it put pressure on them.”

The morning after the men’s September window closed with a draw at home to Serbia (thanks to Gavin Bazunu) and the women’s was about to open, Georgia accepted the last of Smith’s compromises.

“The role is a tough gig. You are on this mad journey that you know is going to end, because you can’t sustain it forever, but if you want to work hands-on in high performance sport then there is no better job than operations, and once you do it for three or four years so many opportunities open up.”

Despite existing in an overwhelmingly male profession, she is yet to encounter any gender barriers.

“I love being a woman in my environment. I am the only woman. I am proud of it, but it is not even a thing. You couldn’t get anyone less ‘FAI’ than me but I was welcomed with open arms.”

Estádio Algarve, September 1st 2021.

Kick-off is imminent. The Irish and Portuguese players are in the tunnel. Amidst the bubbling tension, Holi Smith notices 20 footballs, loaned to the Republic of Ireland squad and worth €100 each, sitting like ducks around the goal Bazunu is about to inhabit.

Sportsfile’s Stephen McCarthy is two hours off capturing the unforgettable image of a bare-chested Cristiano Ronaldo leaping into the night sky. Before that iconic shot McCarthy instinctively snaps Smith, smiling in a smart green jumpsuit, scooping balls into a black sack.

Team walk

“That kind of defines the job, right? Well, it does and it doesn’t because it is so much more than that but at the same time the team had done the warm up but no one was going to collect our balls.

“Right, I’ll do it!”

Match day happens in the eye of the storm.

“Well, they are meant to be the calmest day,” said Smith of a rare crossover in 2018 from an operations gig on the Gold Coast of Australia for World Rugby, having climbed the food chain via her native Welsh Rugby Union and European Professional Club Rugby.

Today will start at 7am in the Castleknock Hotel.

“I like to see the players in the morning, because they are excited but also very reserved, it’s held back but it is there.

“There is a Uefa meeting after breakfast where we look at the strips with the Portuguese delegation. Just to go over match protocols.

“There is a team walk, which it is all very subdued, and some of the boys will have treatment. This is time for players who are definitely not in the match day squad to go get scans or do rehab sessions. So myself or Barry Gleeson make sure the pool and bikes are booked.”

Lunch time comes and goes with the guarantee of an unforeseen conundrum.

“And you just deal with it. We would have a couple of drivers on stand-by to collect last minute numbers for jersey, last minute ticket requests. Some families might be coming into Ireland – now I don’t oversee any of that – but a player might mention his mother or whoever and I will help out to make sure they remain as relaxed as possible.

“There is a shift after lunch as the place goes dead quiet. Everyone goes back to their rooms, the lights go out, blinds come down for one hour of sleep.”

When that hour passes the mood has shifted.

“The day starts all over again. We go for a team walk, just a 10 minute stroll and they come back for a ‘pre-match’ [meeting] before going for a shower, getting ready and then it is go, go, go.

“It is very different to the rugby environment; it is all about staying calm, staying as clear as possible. You don’t see any of that ‘Grrrrr’ until they are in the tunnel and even then you think some of them have taken ‘calmers’ until they tuck jerseys into their shorts and pull up their socks.”

We could pick any of the 19-, 20-year-olds Stephen Kenny has fast-tracked into international football but the smooth way Andrew Omobamidele has established himself makes you wonder what is in the water down Leixlip way.

Nicest bunch

“They are the nicest bunch of boys I have ever met in any group. They are respectful, friendly and like a breath of fresh air – amazing young athletes with it all ahead of them.

“Adam [Idah], Andrew [Omobamidele], Gavin [Bazunu], all have a maturity but also an unapologetic naivety off the pitch. I would ask them if they have done ‘this, this and this’ that other players would do automatically and they would tell you, unashamedly, that they don’t get what you are telling them. And that’s fine.”

They are still transitioning from adolescence to manhood?

“I have a 19-year-old brother who went to a fantastic school and is a great rugby player but there is no way he could get out at the Aviva next Thursday and deliver the goods. No way, just not ready.”

And Callaghan Smith has already played scrumhalf for Bristol Bears under-18s.

“But these young Irish boys are like ‘Come on, give it to me’. And they are always ready to go again.”

Smith comes from a place that elevates rugby onto the same plane as Gaelic Games. Having played underage hockey for Wales, while boarding at Llandovery College, where she was behind Alun Wyn Jones and ahead of George North, her exposure to the operations side of professional sport came during a work experience week with the WRU in November 2006.

“The All Blacks came to Cardiff so I spent the entire time with them.”

This match remains infamous for New Zealand pulling a strop and doing their sacred haka in the changing room because the Welsh wanted to sing Land of my Fathers after the war dance.

“Yes! I was there for the whole thing. It was unbelievable.”

So much happens behind the scenes, so many incidents are kept under wraps to protect the group or simply because a ‘bomb scare’ proved to be just that.

“I was invited to the match by New Zealand, and that’s why I was in the dressing room watching the haka while at the exact same time one of the WRU board members had left his briefcase at the side of his car [beneath the Millennium Stadium] so there was a bomb scare.

“It was absolute chaos and I loved being a part of it all. They always have a bomb squad in the stadium on match days and the board member realised it was his briefcase just as the haka was happening, or not happening.”

That hullabaloo neatly encapsulates the elitism that keeps rugby on the coat tails of an actual global sport like soccer.

“When my Dad picked me up I told him ‘I want to this for the rest of my life.’”

“’Not every week is with the All Blacks, Holi.’”

“’I don’t care.’”

Fast forward 11 years and Smith, who almost became an Irish international Sevens player, left a “great role and great opportunity” working for EPCR in Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

“I was managing a massive part of the company at a real young age. I was overseeing all the ticketing and hospitality operations of the Heineken Cup – so that’s 40 clubs, 40 ticketing programmes, 40 hospitality programmes as well as the ticketing and hospitality for the two semi-finals and final.

“But Neuchâtel was very far away from life and I see Dublin as my home.”

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