WHEN last Sunday’s planned homecoming celebrations for the Grand Slam-winning Irish team were cancelled because of bad weather, one Donegal woman quickly put together a Plan B for head coach Joe Schmidt, captain Rory Best and the Irish players.
Sinéad Bennett works for the Irish Rugby Football Union and is responsible for the logistical and operational planning for all representative teams. The Ardara native currently works with the senior men’s team and also provides administrative support to Joe Schmidt.
Having beat England at Twickenham to win just their third Grand Slam, the players and coaches were due to take part in a celebratory event at the Aviva Stadium. However, it was cancelled because of heavy overnight snowfall in Dublin.
“The schedule rarely changes but last Sunday’s sequence of events proved to be a moveable feast. It started when our flight was delayed from 12.10pm until 3pm and just went from there,” she recalled.
An integral member of the backroom team, Sinéad has been working with the IRFU for the past 14 years. She is the daughter of the late Charlie Bennett, a former Chairman of Donegal County Council who died suddenly while leading the parade as Donegal’s first citizen in New York on St Patrick’s Day 2001. Her mother Marian runs the Bayview Bed and Breakfast, Portnoo Road, Ardara, while her brother Cathal works in Wicklow.
‘Such a contrast’
“Sitting in the dressing room after the boys had completed the Grand Slam I couldn’t help but think that I was in very different place seventeen years earlier. Poor dad was leading the parade when he took a little turn and passed away. It was such a contrast,” she said.
On Wednesday, Sinéad was back at her desk putting the final touches to Ireland’s summer three-test tour to Australia.
“The recce for that trip was done back in December and now it’s a matter of sanctioning hotels, training venues, and transport through the Australian Rugby Union.
“I’ll be going out a day before Joe and the squad to make sure that everything is in place. I’ll meet the team on their arrival and take them back to the hotel. As well as sorting out bedrooms, we usually also take out a large space within each hotel where we can do analysis work, and which we can also use for leisure. It becomes the team’s hub,” she added.
Sinéad was team services co-ordinator for the 2011 Rugby World Cup and travelled with the team to Argentina for Summer Tour 2014.
“This is my fourth season with the senior team and I was with the Irish Women’s Team when they won the Grand Slam in 2013. It’s nice to have been involved in two Grand Slams. I’m due to stay with the senior team until after the 2019 World Cup,” she said
“I’ve worked hard and always try to have a positive attitude. I’ve been lucky enough to have travelled to Argentina, South Africa and Japan with the IRFU, while I was also with the team when they defeated the All-Blacks in Chicago,” she added.
Much of Sinéad’s work had already been done by the time the squad played their first game against France in Paris in this year’s Six Nations Championship back in January.
“We had a pre-camp in Spain where there was a backdrop of blue skies and sunshine which set a nice tone ahead of the Championship,” she said.
Again, details of that training camp had been planned in detail long before the team arrived in Spain.
“It is about precision planning. We look at every possible option, from hotels, to training grounds and facilities in every city we will go to,” she said.
‘All nailed down’
“We would meet with Joe regularly and go through the schedule. I draw up the daily itinerary and for every hour there’s an action that correlates with that. We could be eating at ten, in the gym at eleven and my role is to make sure that, on the ground, everything happens as it should. That it’s all nailed down,” she said.
“We’re planning months in advance and no stone is left unturned,” she added.
Over the past 14 years, Sinéad has witnessed massive changes within the IRFU as the game becomes more and more professional with each passing year.
“I’ve seen huge strides. Plans are already well in place now for next year’s World Cup. We’re working on things from the day that they are first announced. As soon as the Six Nations schedule is announced we’re working on securing hotels and travel – getting the fundamentals in place – before moving onto the micro details,” she said.
Born and raised in a traditional GAA stronghold, Sinéad admits to not having known too much about rugby before the IRFU job.
“Mum said that when dad lived in London he used to sneak off to watch Ireland play in Twickenham which made me proud. In our house, sport was an important part of our lives. There was the whole community aspect and it was a positive thing to be involved in,” she said.
Come matchday, Sinéad’s work is effectively done and she can watch the game in relative peace.
“Once we have made sure that all the pieces are in place it allows the lads to concentrate totally on the match itself,” she said.
Sinéad travelled on the coach with the Irish team both to and from Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day.
“It was a tense journey on the way to the ground. Some lads listened to music to get themselves pumped up while others just sat there in silence,” she said.
And the journey back to the Richmond Hotel with both the Grand Slam and Six Nations trophy safely secured?
“I couldn’t hear myself think. There was a lot of singing and a very joyous atmosphere on the bus,” she added.
Sinéad was back in work mode by that stage however, trying to draw up the following day’s sequence of events as part of the homecoming.
“Massive work went into the homecoming which had to be cancelled due to the snow but we managed to get something organised for the team in the Shelbourne and the plans for that were put together very quickly indeed,” she laughed.
All Irish team schedules are worked through the head coach and once he’s happy they’re e-mailed to each member of the travelling party.
“I would also schedule Joe’s diary. Any enquiry for Joe to attend an event comes in to me but, in fairness, he’s pretty well organised. He’s a great man,” she said.
While some of the Irish squad travelled abroad for a well earned break in recent days it’s been business as usual for Sinéad.
“They’ll get their next email from me towards the end of May as we work through the details of the summer tour to Australia,” she said.
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