Behind every team there’s another team.
Ireland won the Grand Slam last weekend, an event that may have caught your attention, but facilitating the men on the field is a huge undertaking.
One of the key individuals doing so is the man whose organisational powers make him so indispensable that Jonathan Sexton said he was the one necessary item if the out-half were ever banished to a desert island.
Ger Carmody’s official title is head of operations for the IRFU, having previously been team manager and handled operations for the Lions tours of 2013 and 2017.
He’s a man for both the big picture and the telling detail (Exhibit A: “What time did you get to their hotel ahead of the England game?” “About 6.37.”)
I deliberately asked about the hotels first, because that’s where professional sports teams spend a lot of their time.
Carmody is used to visiting hotels, but he’s often looking for space.
Space for team meeting rooms. Space to train 30 rugby players. Space for a six-foot-ten forward to sleep.
“The main thing is the size of the beds, and the space you can have there,” says Carmody.
“You can have a beautiful five-star hotel but they may not have the space.
“We book the hotels a year-and-a-half out from the tournaments. With Carton House they’d have all our rooms organised but for away games you do a recce. Take this year - we had to change hotels in London because England moved into Syon Park.
“We went to Richmond Hill instead, so that involved a recce. You have to literally see what kind are the beds — are there two good-size double beds in each room?”
So much for playing at home, when you stay in a familiar venue. What about travelling?
“If we’re going overseas we can freight stuff with DHL, our partners, and ship that to the venue,” says Carmody.
“But taking last week as an example, we sent the team bus across by ferry, we wanted our own branded bus, and a lot of the equipment we bring ourselves.
"With Twickenham you’re not bringing a lot of your heavy equipment because you can do a lot of the heavy training at home before travelling, but you’re still bringing a fair amount with you.
“Medical equipment like strappings and medication, some strength and conditioning equipment, rehab equipment, balls, cones, bibs, kit - jerseys, shorts and socks which are numbered and embroidered at home — and some nutritional products. It all adds up.
“We probably have more equipment, and analysis has grown. There’s more required in terms of strength and conditioning and food, specifically, there’s a stronger focus now on nutrition.
“Our staff numbers have increased too. My first trip away was 2003, to the Rugby World Cup, and there were 14 of us in the backroom in Australia. We’re up around the 20 mark now.”
The players’ needs are always to the fore, though.
Carmody and his team make sure they can focus on training and games by helping everywhere else.
“Sinead (Bennett) does the day sheet every day, mapping out every minute of the day.
“Starting off in the morning with their hydration tests, breakfast, training or the gym — that’s all mapped out for them, including the gear they’re wearing, so it gives them a clear sense of what they’re doing, and they don’t have to worry about off-the-field stuff.
“We give them a packing list, and for games they have the option of sending their bags on the bus, as happened with Twickenham, rather than bringing them to the airport, or they can just check them in.
“They have dress codes for the Friday, for match day, all of that, and they’re responsible for their rugby stuff, if you like — undergarments and so on — but everything else is provided.”
And the notion that vast quantities of polo shirts and hoodies are lurking around every corner of the team hotel?
“Canterbury are very good in terms of kit, but it’s all designed to get the lads through their work in the different conditions they face.
"They have enough to train and so on — but I wouldn’t say they have an excessive amount of kit, they have enough to get them through the sessions.”
There’s a natural tendency to see the win over England last week as the peak, but getting to the summit is something that takes a long time.
Ireland were motoring nicely after their first three wins but then came the snow, courtesy of the Beast from the East. Not good news for a team needing to get on the field for training.
“That created some real challenges for us, and for the match week against Scotland we were trying to put contingency plans in place — just getting a pitch to train on, basically. When we got out to Carton House there were drifts four or five feet deep on the pitch.
“The ground staff in Carton House were terrific, as were people from Barnhall RFC, Peter Black organised 15 people to come up and help clear away the snow so we could train.”
They managed to clear half the pitch, but it was a struggle. That half-pitch took two days’ solid work.
“We had up to 20 people at a time working on the pitch, but we also had access to Leixlip Amenity Centre, just down the road.
"It was great to be at home for the Scotland game, but with that kind of weather event you just don’t know what you’re going to get —
Sinead was key in getting those venues ready for Joe and the coaches.”
They improvised. The week to the Scotland game ran like this — training on Monday in Abbotstown House, on Tuesday in Carton House, Wednesday off and Thursday they trained in the morning before moving to the Shelbourne. Friday they had their captain’s run and played Scotland on the Saturday.
The planning continued all the time, says Carmody, down to what they’d do if they came back from London the following weekend with a championship or a grand slam, but the days rolled on after the Scotland game, the team flying to England on the Thursday.
“An advance team had gone to the hotel — in Richmond in this case — to set everything up and the bus arrived with the equipment for them. The premise is always that the team arrives and the hotel space is ready.
“If it’s food time, that food’s ready, but if not the room keys are all laid out for the players; we check them in as a group so they can just pick up the key and go to their room.
"The medical and operational rooms are ready for them so if they need to work, they can go straight to work.” Saturday was grand slam day.
“John (Moran, logistics and kit) is in the stadium three or four hours before the game. He brings the kit and lays everything out meticulously — kit, match programmes, drinks, all the equipment we need. Ruth (Wood-Martin, nutritionist) lays out the nutritional product that needs to be there.
"It’s a work of art, to be honest, the way John lays out the room for the layers, but it’s also functional — he’d have most things there that they need on match day.
“The players got up, had breakfast, pre-game meal, and we got to the stadium around eighty minutes before kick-off, the typical time. There’s the coin-toss, referee inspection, it’s match time.”
You know what happened next. Carmody says the players enjoyed themselves in the Twickenham dressing-room, “after the other games they key thing is recuperation, getting themselves ready for the next game up, they’re very professional, they know what they need to do to be ready. But yeah, the enjoyed the win.”
In many ways Carmody and company have an unenviable job. There’s a general expectation the hotel will be good, the bus will run on time, the gear will be in the dressing-room — it’s the kind of work that’s only noticed when something goes wrong.
“We’ve never had something happen that was detrimental to the team’s performance, but we’ve been doing this for so long we know what we’re at — but we also cover each other as well, we work well as a team.
“The way I plan things is ‘one thing equals the next, equals the next, equals the next’.
“You think those things through, and you learn down the years how to make sure everything is covered.
“It’s been a learning curve all through the years, and it still is — you come up against different issues, or you see something done better somewhere else — you incorporate that into your work then as well.
“But the key thing is learning and continuing to learn as you go.” And appreciating the moment. Carmody has been with the IRFU since he was nineteen, but some elements of the job remain special.
“We’re all very lucky to walk into the changing-room of an international stadium and see those green jerseys hanging up, ready to go,” he says.
“They’re all personalised, number, name, date of the match, it’s a lovely memento for them. We all love being part of that, it’s a great honour. It never gets old.”
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