04 February, 2011

Six Nations: What's it like to be called up for a first (Ireland international) cap?

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Late developer: Ireland's Mike Ross
The Six Nations has the
highest average attendance
of any sporting
event in the World 
(including the FIFA World Cup)

 After years of hard slog with nothing to show for it other than nasty injuries, you've been called up to the Ireland international squad for the first time. But, how does it feel and how does it work?

Paul McNaughton (pictured above right) was in line for his first Irish cap after a (now defunct system of a) final trial, but, in 1978 technology didn’t run to text alerts or Facebook.

If he wanted to find out who was playing, well, the mountain wasn’t going to come to Muhammad.

"After that final trial, the selectors announced they’d name the team at 10pm that night," says McNaughton.

"And Noel Murphy named the team upstairs in a room in the Shelbourne Hotel with other trialists and squad/fringe players in the room. That’s how I found out I was playing — he named the team in front of us all. That was kind of unusual, even back then." 

Head Honcho: Ireland rugby manager Declan Kidney
Nowadays, McNaughton is one of the men who puts the nervous souls out of their misery.

As Ireland team manager he doesn’t call a group of players up to a hotel room, though.

"In the new mode we get emails out. Declan (Kidney) would be in touch with players throughout the year but ultimately, when the selection of a panel is made, I’d get the emails out to tell them they’ve been selected on the senior or the A panel — where we’ll be meeting up and so on.

"For guys who’ve never been there before, Declan or I would call them, but it’s usually Declan. They like to hear from the (head) coach.

"I’ve had a couple of players who took a while for the news to dawn on them, or for them to realise that it was a proper phone call and not one of their friends putting them on. We occasionally bring on young lads and when you ring them sometimes you can tell they’re thinking ‘is this a pal of mine taking someone off?’"

McNaughton is front of house when the new boys pitch up at the team hotel.

"I meet them and brief them," he says, "But it’s mostly housekeeping — scheduling, the gear they should be wearing — being careful about wearing the right-branded stuff with Ireland — that they need to be early for the meetings.

"A lot of the stuff is done by email — there’s a daily schedule, a monthly schedule so that when they come in they’ll have an idea where they’ll be at certain times during the seven weeks of the Six Nations. They’re working in a professional set-up anyway, and the provinces would have their standards in terms of punctuality, clothing, diet and so forth. So it’s easier in that it’s not a whole new world when they come in — the first things the coaches do with the new guys is that while the moves may be the same (as the provinces’) the calls may be different."

There’s a familiarity among the players that’s a crucial difference from the old days, but as the manager puts it, some elements of the dynamic remain timeless. A team of disparate characters, old and young, still has to gel.

"We have a bank of PCs available to them where they can see the plays and moves which will bring them up to date — in the amateur days you’d get familiar with the moves fairly quickly, but a professional team has a vast array of moves and calls, but it’s a matter of getting familiar with names of those moves.

"In the old days you’d have known guys because you’d have faced them in a club game, or once a year at inter-provincial level, but players then wouldn’t have been as familiar with each other as the players are nowadays. It’s easier — it’s certainly more hi-tech — but they still have to get to know each other.

"It’s all very well management putting an arm around a guy coming in for the first time, but the most important thing is the other players making them feel welcome. That hasn’t changed.

"If an 18 or 19-year-old comes in he’ll be shy, naturally, and he shouldn’t be left sitting eating his food in the corner. There’s an important role there for other players, particularly the senior players, to help the newer players.

"In the old days you knew you were on the team, because it was picked and then you came in. Nowadays there’s a little more uncertainty because you’re picking a squad, plus you’re bringing in younger guys for experience. Players don’t know if they’re on the 22, so there’s an element of uncertainty compared to the amateur days.

"These days players come in and work for the first week of camp, for instance, and everyone feels they have a chance, but early on the players know if they’ll be playing or not. The team is announced on the Tuesday of an international, when they’ll already have spent a week in camp, and they’re told a few hours before the actual announcement."
Johnathan Sexton: false start or two with Ireland
What players crave more than anything:an international cap
Jonathan Sexton had a false start or two.

Back in 2008 he was called into the camp for the first time. "I remember Gordon D’Arcy was injured and Eddie O’Sullivan called me in on the Friday — it was just announced, I got a text or an email — but the day before I was to go in, I broke my thumb. Missed all the Six Nations. Great."

After that false start Sexton got the shout again later in the year. From the make-up of the teams in training, he had an inkling he was close to a first start.

"It’s a fair indicator, the way the teams are picked for training. At a team meeting, then, it was announced that I was in the squad.

"Everyone from Leinster congratulated me first, obviously, the guys I’d know well — but the guys I was in competition with to get the jersey, they were very good too.

"Then it was just a matter of ringing home to tell them, and they were delighted. After that you have to face the press with Declan and Brian (O’Driscoll) because it’s your first cap. I was pretty nervous — there seemed to be hundreds of cameras there and there’s a lot of questions."

There’s plenty of interest afterwards as well, when Sexton’s mobile went into overdrive.

"When you come out of that press conference you’ve got about 500 messages on your phone, because everybody you know has just seen you on television. You might have told the odd family member but that’s how most people find out, and it’s great — guys I mightn’t have talked to in years, or from school, they all take the time to get in touch and wish you well.

"You’re always working towards it in the back of your mind. If you’re playing out-half for Leinster then you know there’s a good chance — one in four — of starting. you’re in the shop window. When you get one cap you love it, you want more."
Ireland kit man: Paddy Reilly
THERE’S only one man a new cap needs to meet when it comes to the gear he’ll be wearing. Paddy Reilly is the kit man.

"The big thing is they don’t parachute in from nowhere, put it that way," he says. "They’ve been around the scene so they’re used to the system.

"The kit comes up from our warehouse in Naas, where the gear is stored. They furnish me with the tops and jerseys and so on for the lads, because they have all the sizes and measurements below. The stuff comes in for a new cap smoothly, and that’s a help for them settling in. They might have been in camp before but when they’re in the squad itself, it’s different, and that’s part of it.

"Obviously it’s a very special time for the first caps, it’s something that’ll only happen once in their lifetimes, and it’s a tremendous achievement for them and for their families. I’m only here to facilitate their smooth passage from here out to the field."

Properly brand gear must be worn at all times while on international duty

THE week leading to that game can be busy enough, says Leinster star Sexton, but one memory stands out.

"It’s the expectation — you can see the difference between the Autumn Internationals and Six Nations, and a summer tour can be different again. But the hype for a Six Nations game is fairly serious.

"There were no big speeches from Declan about playing for Ireland or the importance of that or anything, no. That’s not his style.

"He just says, ‘you deserve to be here, you’ve played well, you deserve the chance’.

"But he said one thing that stayed with me — ‘your first cap is the easiest, because nobody expects anything from you; the rest are a little different’. And he was right!"

So much for the beginning, by the way. The end can be a little more difficult to organise, says McNaughton.

He’d announced he was heading to America in 1981 but was hoping to finish out the season with Ireland.

"The last game was against France, but I was dropped," he says.

"I learned from the radio, just shows communication has improved a lot since.

"You didn’t have the camp situation at that stage — nowadays Declan would be able to talk to the lads face to face.

"A professional coach would make sure the player knew before the news broke.

"Back then it was just a bit tougher. You’d learn from the papers or the radio that you were dropped. Tough love."

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With thanks to the printed version of  the "Irish Examiner" newspaper: Friday 5th February,  2011.

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