A player favourite and a crucial part of the Irish rugby set up, Killian Woods talks to Patrick ‘Rala’ O’Reilly and Jamie Heaslip about the role he plays in the squad
Opening the interview with a disparaging reference to his status as “baggage master”, Rala is forever reluctant to be called a “master”. However, the role of Rala in the Irish squad cannot be underestimated.
A man to himself and defining the word modest, it is difficult to tempt the Irish rugby squad bagman, Patrick ‘Rala’ O’Reilly, into highlighting the key roles he plays in the Irish set up. His nickname has stuck with him for the majority of his life and originates from a school lesson in spelling his name in Irish.
“Many years ago the teacher asked me to spell my name on the blackboard. So I was up there and wrote R,A,L,A and so it was just left sitting on the board, ‘Rala’.”
Much like his nickname, the job has followed him around and stuck with him for most of his life. A bagman since starting off in the club of which he is a lifelong member, Terenure College RFC, Rala got involved when he was chosen by the likes of Paul Joyce, Barry Coleman and Mick Smith who were all coming into the first team at Terenure College.
Through a friend on the Leinster under-20s selection committee, he took over duties of the underage side and then onto the senior Leinster team. Following three years with Leinster, the opportunity to take the position for the Irish senior team came along and he “jumped at the chance of course”.
Rala’s career began in December 1994 when Ireland took on the USA at Lansdowne Road. Now into his eighteenth season, Rala is the most experienced member of the setup and one of the most valued assets. His natural progression through the ranks has been well earned and seen him gain recognition with the British and Irish Lions which was a “dream come true”.
Over the years of tending to the position, Rala has seen the high and the low points that the Irish rugby team endured. His tenure has seen him attend the Rugby World Cup four times and visit every rugby nation bar Fiji.
There are several virtues to his job, he recalls: “There are so many. I’m very lucky to be kept on by the IRFU coach and captain. You meet so many people travelling. Last week I met the President of the New Zealand Rugby Union, John Sturgeon, who has been a friend to us for many years of going down to New Zealand.”
It would be wrong to say that the bad aspects of the job are more prominent in his mind, but they are easier for Rala to list off. “When you are away from home and loved ones. And then equally [difficult] is when the lads retire from the international scene. Then you don’t see them as much as you would have normally. You build up a relationship and then they’re are not there anymore.”
It would be wrong to say that Rala focuses on the negatives, he is very certain of what he says and unlike a lot of people, thinks before he speaks. He is very certain the highlight of his career was experiencing the Grand Slam in the Millennium stadium in 2009.
The longevity of his career has allowed him to experience these highlights and work amongst the golden generation of Irish rugby. He evades singling out any specific team or player that has been the best to come through the set up during his time. “If you reach that height of playing in the green jersey, they are all brilliant. I don’t have a favourite. To me, they are all the same.”
Rala may not single out specific players as his favourite or the best, but the players clearly regard him as a unique and respected personality. You can only feel that he sells himself somewhat short when explaining his role as bagman.
“It entails helping the coach and his management team as much as I can and then equally important is helping the captain and his squad. That could take up various guises helping gather the footballs or doing this doing that.”
The help that he provides must have an added specialty if he has been retained since 1994 by every Irish coach. Rala’s experience is probably his greatest contribution to the team and keeps a familiar vibe between different managements.
It is great to see that after all these years, Rala still gets the same kick out of being involved and loves the position: “Rugby to me means friendships and the craic. The people you meet on the road home and abroad and the fun one has as well. There are serious points as well. Rugby to me is everything really, I love rugby people more than I love rugby.”
One of Rala’s biggest fans, Jamie Heaslip only had positive things to say. His “my door is always open” policy seems to stand out to Heaslip as a key aspect of his character. “Somebody once said, ‘If you want the mood of the camp, go to Rala’. He has a crazy amount of games and seen it all with Ireland and been everywhere. Rala is just so nice. Nothing phases him with regards to games and he is always ready.”
It’s all about his attention to detail, Heaslip describes. “Little things Rala does are so funny. He always leaves a red apple for John Hayes and has started leaving out a little comb for me because I’m doing Movember.”
Continuing to speak about Rala’s value to the team, Heaslip proclaims: “No matter what it is, Rala will always get it done. If you ever want anything, Rala is the man who always knows how to get it by crook or by whatever.
“Everyday after lunch, I’d have a cup of tea with him and John Hayes. You’d sit down and have the chats with Rala, couple of biscuits. He’s just the guy that can pick you up when times are down.”
For now, Rala is happy with his bagman title and job within the squad. He shows no signs of ending his career anytime soon and may even fit in that trip to Fiji before the end. The baggage master title doesn’t rest well with him, but he claims: “Someday, I will be the master, and that’s when I’ll give up”.