AS the Irish rugby team runs down the tunnel at Twickenham tomorrow afternoon, to take on England in the Six Nations Championship, their bagman, Patrick O’Reilly, will be standing in the wings, holding his breath and praying for a famous victory.
“I am always optimistic. I will be full of excitement; the anticipation is great, you get caught up in the whole match situation. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t,” he says.
“In my book the supporters are the most important out of everyone. You always hear the Irish, it doesn’t matter where in the world you are, they are absolutely outstanding, they cheer so much for the team. But you feel the losses too. I was absolutely gutted over New Zealand. I did have a little cry by myself.”
Better known by his nickname Rala, he hails from Templeogue village, Dublin and has served as the baggage master for the Irish rugby team for nearly 20 years. In 2009 he was also appointed bagman for the Lions.
“I am just an ordinary Joe Soap, a simple bagman. We are all part of a team, I am just a small spoke in the whole operation. I make sure that everything is in order for the training sessions and the matches. That the kits are all correct. It’s almost like being a butler, like the ones in Downtown Abbey,’ he says, laughing.
At the start of every match week, Rala, 65, sits down and writes a list of everything he thinks the team will need, from kits and socks, to cones, balls and the right music.
“There would be around 60 things on it, depending on where we are going, if you are in the Kingdom of Tonga, for example, then I would need to bring the suntan lotion too.”
Not surprisingly, Rala loves his job. The only downside is missing friends, family and his dog while on the longer tours. “It can be hard and it does make you homesick. But the whole squad keep you going, the team spirit is great,” he says.
To the Irish rugby team, Rala is seen as a hero.
“Even when I stopped being captain, I’d find my bags in my room when I arrived at the hotel and my laundry hanging on the back of my door. He didn’t have to do that, but then there’s so much that he didn’t have to do, but still did,” recalls Brian O’Driscoll.
Paul O’Connell agrees, saying: “Rala has a gift for making people feel at ease and special at the same time.”
Jamie Heaslip describes him as a “role model’ and a “great friend”.
“The best story I know, though it is not my own, is from the time Rala was interviewed for the Lions bagman job and it sums him up,” says Heaslip.
“At the end of the interview, the Lion’s 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’.”
Not surprisingly, the suggestion of retiring, leaves Rala cold: “I keep on going because I get so much help. It is a team effort.”
* Rala: A Life in Rugby, by Patrick O’Reilly is published by Hachette Ireland, €14.99.
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