How Joe Schmidt’s team became guinea pigs for Olympic experience

Hideyuki Harada has been mayor of Fukuroi for 19 years. Six times he has been elected to his post. This is a man who knows a thing or two about how to handle people and he is charm personified as a dozen or so Irish journalists join him at city hall the day before Japan and Ireland meet in their World Cup Pool A encounter ten minutes down the road.

How Joe Schmidt’s team became guinea pigs for Olympic experience

Hideyuki Harada has been mayor of Fukuroi for 19 years. Six times he has been elected to his post. This is a man who knows a thing or two about how to handle people and he is charm personified as a dozen or so Irish journalists join him at city hall the day before Japan and Ireland meet in their World Cup Pool A encounter ten minutes down the road.

There are no historic, cultural or economic ties between this city of just under 90,000 people in the Shizuoka Prefecture and Ireland but the presence here of Joe Schmidt’s team, and the decision by the Olympic Council of Ireland to use the area as a pre-Olympic base camp next year, have unleashed a wave of enthusiasm for our little nation.

Fukuroi held its first ever St Patrick’s festival last March. The ECOPA Stadium, the venue for today’s game, was lit up in green for the day and the council offices opened to locals who came to listen to Irish music, eat Irish food – the poor sods – and embrace this new, distant brother.

“The events are more important to help the internationalisation of Fukuroi, helping the citizens to learn more about other cultures, especially Ireland, and helping the culture of sports here,” Harada explains. “Currently around five percent of the population of Fukuroi are from another country.

“We are hoping to become a more welcoming town to foreigners and hopefully that population will increase. Besides the economic benefits these events can bring now, we’re looking to future benefits that they will bring to the town.”

Mayor Harada has gone all in. He has worn his Irish rugby jersey to work every day this month in anticipation of a game that will train the eyes of two nations, and many more besides, on his backyard. But would he still be wearing it come kick-off today?

“I have to wear my Japanese jersey in the stadium. However, my heart is green.”

That’s two decades of diplomacy in action right there but Mayor Harada met another fine exponent of the art on Thursday when he presented a crown melon, the local delicacy, to Joe Schmidt at the team hotel. You will win the game, he told Schmidt, as the Japanese team is very weak. No, no, Schmidt insisted, the Japanese team is very dangerous. We’ll call that particular meeting of minds a draw, then.

Today’s game will be the most public expression of this newly-joined link between his city and Ireland but the Olympic holding camp will make for a more tangible Irish presence across a longer period. Athletes will stay in the same hotel as the rugby team and use the various sports facilities to acclimatise to Japan away from the adrenalin rush that is the Tokyo metropolitan area.

Between them, the IRFU and the Olympic Federation of Ireland (OFI) have been over and back to this city well over a dozen times, at first to confirm its suitability and then to foster relationships and dot the I’s and cross the T’s so that their charges can assimilate with ease and prosper on Japanese soil.

Joe Schmidt’s side were coming here whether they liked it or not. The fixtures decided that but the OFI looked at eight other venues in a 90-minute to two-hour radius around the capital. They landed on Fukuroi because it offers the ECOPA stadium and indoor arena and other facilities besides. Ireland’s swimmers and divers will be nearby in Hamamatsu where their Japanese colleagues train full-time.

But there is more to this than just that bricks and mortar. The OFI wanted somewhere that could feel like home. Somewhere that made them feel welcome. Dealing with the Japanese at an official level can be frustrating for perfectly innocent cultural reasons.

Excessive formality and deference rather than red tape can prove to be a formidable thicket to those eager to cut to the chase but the groundwork has paid off.

OFI chief executive Peter Sherrard established a close relationship with Mayor Harada who, along with a team of officials, was a guest at the Sports Institute in Abbotstown last April when the agreement to use Fukuroi as Team Ireland’s base was formally signed. Chef de mission for the team, Patricia Heberle, has been another to tie the various threads together.

“It’s like having a little army of helpers,” she said of the Fukuroi side.

Having an Ireland team play a Rugby World Cup game in the ECOPA, and stay at the same traditional Japanese hotel as the Olympic team intends to use next year, is another bonus for Heberle and her deputies as they continue to fine tune their own preparations ahead of the Olympics.

Contact between the two governing bodies has been consistent with Heberle and the IRFU’s David Nucifora just two to have compared notes. The main area of duplication has been in the areas of nutrition and catering at the remote hotel in nearby Iwata which is more or less a private retreat where the only distraction will be the excessive tranquility.

“We will have a good debrief with them when they come back from the World Cup,” said Heberle. “Nutrition is critical. If the athletes are happy with their hotel and they have food in their stomachs then you don’t hear too much whinging.”

Schmidt’s squad has availed of a western chef and so will the OFI. The IRFU’s full-time nutritionist, Ruth Wood-Martin, has been dovetailing with Sharon Madigan, her counterpart in the Institute of Sport back in Dublin, and both did reconnaissance missions to Shizuoka long before now.

Schmidt & Co aren’t the first “guinea pigs”, as Heberle called them. Athletes from an assortment of codes have been to Fukuroi and/or Tokyo for test events and various world championships in recent months. The expectation is that roughly half of Team Ireland’s athletes will use Fukuroi as a base camp before the Games begin in late July of next year.

For some it isn’t needed, or it just doesn’t suit. The rowers will stick to tried and tested camps in Italy and Spain to adapt to the stifling heat, although nothing is likely to prepare athletes for the humidity that awaits here in high summer. If either of the hockey teams make it they will need to find another prefecture as there aren’t many hockey pitches in Japan and none around Fukuroi.

The golfers will operate an in-and-out job to Tokyo given the men have the Open Championship and the women the Evian Championship the weekend before their Olympic experiences kick in. The main tenants in Fukuroi, then, will likely be athletics and, probably, boxing and Mayor Harada is hopeful that the presence of top-class athletes can act as a motivator to children in the city.

Ultimately, though, success on the pitch and on the track will be a priority for both Irish operations, starting today.

“The Japanese team will make at least the last eight,” the mayor predicted. “However, the Ireland team will be victorious in the World Cup. I hope!” The man knows his audience.

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