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'I was, F***, this is an All Black hitting me in the head, this is going to be great, he is going to be gone, one of their main players'

By Liam Heagney

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Here is an incredible underdog rugby story, a Hollywood-type feel-good yarn to make you smile. Jack Regan thought he was a beaten docket in January 2020, Ulster telling him he had failed to make their grade, yet 13 months later he was running out at the raucous Forsyth Barr in Dunedin, ready to pack down in the second row for the Highlanders against the Crusaders in the opening round of Sky Super Rugby Aotearoa. Crazy.

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The tale of how the unheralded 23-year-old Irishman got from there to here – a single substitute Guinness PRO14 appearance in three seasons to a pair of recent Aotearoa starts – is an epic brimming with multiple twists and turns.

A shock text from a randomer in New Zealand, uncollected bags in an Auckland airport, a country-wide lockdown, a distressful yellow card within minutes of his Mitre 10 Cup debut, and then a gutsy decision to sweat it out with no job in a South Island summer in the hope that Tony Brown might eventually make a life-changing call.

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The Breakdown reviews the Joe Moody attack on Jack Regan and interviews referee Ben O’Keeffe
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The Breakdown reviews the Joe Moody attack on Jack Regan and interviews referee Ben O’Keeffe

Brown did ring and the rest is now history. Very colourfully so. If Kiwis didn’t generally know an Irishman other Oli Jager was set to be involved in this year’s Super Rugby, it took less than two February minutes for them to be left in no doubt as to who Regan was, All Blacks prop Joe Moody unleashing a ferocious series of open-palmed clouts to whippersnapper’s fresh-looking face.

All the more astonishing amid the vibrant atmosphere ignited by the Highlanders’ rousing pre-game haka was the passive reaction to this assault on Regan when it ended. There was no punishing card brandished. Instead, referee Ben O’Keeffe meekly called in the respective captains for a natter and shouted play on, leaving Regan wondering what type of Wild West he had just arrived into.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he told RugbyPass over Zoom three weeks after he had received his belter of a New Zealand welcome live on TV in front of an attendance of approximately 15,000. “It was two minutes into the game and we had a maul. I just grabbed the collar of his jersey and he just lost his s***, didn’t he? I couldn’t believe it. I was getting hit in the head. In my head I was like, ‘Happy days, he is getting a red card here’. So, I didn’t retaliate, I just left him to hit me.

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“I was, ‘F***, this is an All Black hitting me, this is going to be great, he is going to be gone, one of their main players’. After he let go I roared over, ‘You’re gone, lad, you’re gone’. Obviously, no penalty, no card!

“The referee came out after the game and said they had made a mistake and he should have got a yellow card and when I look back now it was harmless enough. It was an open palm but he did hit me in the head a number of times. You have got that aspect too. I don’t know – I just laughed at it, it was a bit of craic.

“I didn’t see him after the game. He was maybe trying to avoid me or something. Jaysus no, it was grand, I wouldn’t be holding anything against him at all. It’s rugby at the end of the day and these things happen.

“Everybody is asking why didn’t I hit him back? I’m two minutes into my debut, I don’t want to get a card like I did on my Otago debut where I got a yellow. I was like ‘Jaysus no, I was going to let him swing for the hills and hopefully see him walk off with a red card’. He just lost it and it was funny. But I got into the game after that so it was good.

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“Moody is an awesome player but when you come up against him and the likes of (Sam) Whitelock, (Scott) Barrett and (Richie) Mo’unga, you’re not really in awe of them. You’re just in your head, ‘I’m here and I have a job to do’.”

We will learn more anon of Regan living the dream at the Highlanders, but in order to understand the craziness of him being on that Dunedin field in the first place, we need to retrace his faltering steps back in Ireland where an unconventional route into the pro ranks didn’t consistently enough bring out the dog in him to make the type of lasting breakthrough he is now lapping up in New Zealand.

The established path up the Irish ladder is attending fee-paying schools where rugby is allowed to flourish as much as any learning of history or geography textbooks. It’s where the IRFU’s provincial academies recruit most of its would-be pros from, the club game only providing minuscule numbers to that apprenticeship system.

Being a tall fella as a teenager, though, Regan gained notice playing out his local club in Birr and involvement in the Leinster youths set-up eventually became the catalyst for Ireland age-grade exposure and an academy deal up at Ulster. There the good news ends, however, as trying to make the cut in Belfast became a painful endurance that ultimately ended in rejection.

“I went up there June 2017 on a three-year contract and halfway through I got a bad back injury which had me out for the guts of a year and slowed a lot of my development. It was through squatting. I was squatting every day, squatting lower than I was used to. Whatever happened I got a bulging disc and had sciatic all down my right leg.

“Nerve pain is nasty and I had that for over a year. I tried to rehab it and it wasn’t really going anywhere. I bit the bullet and got an operation at the end of 2018, got back and made my debut before Christmas 2019 (off the bench at Leinster). I wasn’t sure whether I would get a development deal or not. I was quietly hoping I would but I didn’t know. Then two or three weeks after that game I was brought in and told I was being let go at the end of the season.”

The reasons weren’t sugar-coated. “They were like, ‘The back injury slowed a lot of your development’ and I knew that myself. I’m not the biggest lock in the world (6ft 5ins) and a back injury like that is not going to help. It was also around the collision area.

“After that, I went back in training on my own in the gym and on the pitch with the academy lads, I’d be in there every day going through the motions a bit. I didn’t know what I was going to do because I always wanted to play pro rugby and I’d no other offers anywhere. It was up in the air and I was down in the dumps.

“It wasn’t a nice place to be at the time because all the lads knew you had been let go and your mates were doing really well and playing week in, week out so it was hard to be in the environment like that, but you just get through it, do the work and hope an offer – or a text from a randomer in New Zealand – will come up.”

Bronson Ross had a journeyman rugby career. From Oamaru, he arrived at Ulster from Coventry in 2013, his Irish qualification via his mother smoothing the deal. The Kiwi prop was long gone from Belfast, though, by the time Regan joined. He’d met his wife Leanne via a Tinder date and they adventurously packed up for a new life in Dunedin.

By the top of last year, Ross was coaching with the local Sharks and they needed a lock for their upcoming provincial season. Alerted to Regan’s possible availability, Ross fired off a text. His interest piqued and with Ulster agreeing to pay out the contract that was due to expire in May, Regan was on a plane within a few weeks to a country he had never been to before.

“Out of the blue I get a message from a lad in New Zealand and I’m, ‘Who the f*** is this lad? There is no way I’m going out there’. But then I chatted a bit with my dad (Offaly All-Ireland hurling winner Daithí), who would be a big influence, and my agent John Andress and I was, ‘F*** it, I’ll go’. At that point, I didn’t really have anything to lose and a week later I was on the plane.”

His arrival was initially quite the caper. He didn’t twig he needed to collect his checked-in baggage at Auckland International for the domestic flight to Dunedin, leaving him without clothes for his first week. St Patrick’s Day was also eventful, Regan livening up the staid atmosphere at an Irish bar by patriotically singing Amhrán na bhFiann with a few Guinness on board, but the high jinks then suddenly came to a juddering halt.

New Zealand went into lockdown, leaving the rugby tourist at a loose end. “Our lockdown was strict, everywhere was closed. But I was only up the road from the beach where the Sharks play, my local club. It’s a lovely part of the world so I go down every odd day and run. We managed, and I’m in a nice house as well so I have been lucky in that respect.

“Lockdown at the beginning was a bit of a nightmare, I had just come over and was settling in and then you’re in lockdown. I didn’t really know what I was going to do but when I made my mind up I wasn’t going to go home, I just put the head down and made sure I was going to be ready when it all got going again. We ended up back playing at the beginning of June and I was lucky. New Zealand handled everything so well.”

In fairness, so has Regan. He knew the Otago coaches would be watching the local league games and knew if he leapt onto the Mitre 10 Cup scene, he would then potentially have the eyes of the Highlanders on him. The hunch worked out a treat despite some bumps on the road such as an Otago debut yellow card and the long wait between the end of the provincial season and that fateful call from Highlanders boss Brown.

“I knew Otago didn’t really have too many locks so I knew there was a position there in the Mitre squad. I just knuckled down, knew that if I played well with the Sharks I’d be in with a chance. I played well enough to earn an Otago spot and then I’d to make sure I played every game and I ended up playing every game pretty much bar one.

“We played Auckland in game one and I came off the bench. I went into a maul three or four minutes later and it went down – I don’t know why, I didn’t bring it down. The referee called me over and said, ‘You’re going to the bin’. I walked off and later in the pub I was like, ‘F***, I’m never going to play for Otago again, I’m done in New Zealand’.

“Then when I was in the gym the following Wednesday head coach Tom Donnelly came up and said, ‘You’re playing this week against Manawatu, you’re in’. I was like, ‘Right, this is my opportunity’ and I never looked back from there. Tony Brown had been watching all the games and I’d heard rumours that maybe the Highlanders were going to have me in as an injury replacement player but I didn’t really know.

“I was, ‘Will I get a job in an off-licence or a bar, the Mitre 10 is over?’ Ireland was back in lockdown, so I wasn’t going to go home. I was hoping the Highlanders would approach and thankfully a few days before Christmas I got the call. Tony rang and said, ‘We’d love to have you in, just make sure you’re ready to go’.

“I was over the moon and I was ready when we came in on January 12. I aced all the tests and made sure I was going to make that my point of difference. It was only a three-week pre-season but the heat was unreal.”

Gradually, Regan felt he belonged and by the end of February, he was starting against the Crusaders and again the following week at the Chiefs. Quite a leap for someone who had been told 13 months previously he wasn’t cut out for the pro ranks in Ireland.

“There is no shortage of locks in Ireland and when I was in Ulster I didn’t really have the dog, a ruthless edge. When I came out here I was on my own and just had to make up my mind whether I really wanted to be a pro rugby player. That was the switch for me and every game I played I had that bit of edge.

“Even with the Sharks I was a pure dog and I brought that into the Otago games. That was a big thing for me. I can’t say I slipped under the net in Ireland – when I was in Ulster, maybe I didn’t deserve a contract as I was out with that injury for ages. The Ulster coaches have their agenda as well, they have to do their jobs. But I just got an opportunity here and I have taken it.

“Coming from a GAA background, there was always that bit of dog in me and I have always known that. While I was with Ulster it didn’t really come out. It maybe came out in one or two games where I was really good but I didn’t have it every week. I knew that and when I came out here I was like, ‘I’m just going to be a dog here and see what happens’ and here I am now bringing it in every training session and even in the walkthroughs.

“I was on the Otago bench for game one and bar the yellow card I got a good 20 minutes. Straightaway you’re up against the best. I remember Rieko Ioane was playing for Auckland, all the All Blacks were in. That exposure is always going to make you better as a player.

“The week after, Aaron Smith was the Manawatu nine so you’re up against the best nine of all time. That run of games was huge. Exposure and experience at that level was massive. I never got that in the past, but the coaches had the belief to play me and it made me a better player.”

Bulking up has helped. “I came over last March and weighed 108kgs. I’m now 115kgs. I have gotten bigger and my conditioning has gotten way better as well. I’m probably still even a bit too small. A few of the locks here in New Zealand are 130kgs, so I have a long way to go but I put on weight easily enough.

“A few of my mates would slag me and say that I have got overweight. I do look a bit bigger but my legs aren’t the biggest in the world either. But I do have my strengths and that bit of the dog I was on about – there is a place for that in the game now and that is where I fit into a team.

“When I went in at the beginning to the Highlanders I didn’t think I was going to play at all. I was going in as an injury replacement and that was it. But when I was in there I knew there were only three other locks, so if I trained well I might get a shot. Then as you train more and learn off the coaches, who have been brilliant with me, I’m now 100 per cent a different man than when I walked in.

“Back in January, I didn’t have that belief I was able to play at this level but then when you play a few games and you know that the coaches trust you to do a job, that is really when you know you are part of the team. I feel like I’m in there now and all the boys are great lads. We feel as if the Highlanders going in the right direction.

“The Blues loss was a hiccup. We have a young enough squad and with leaders like Aaron Smith and Ash Dixon, I reckon we will be all good. They are trying to drive a young group of lads who are hungry to win, so we are all going in one direction. There are no egos at all. It’s a great environment to be in. I’m very lucky to be where I am.”

What the future holds beyond this Super Rugby season is uncertain. Regan misses his family dearly, as well as his elderly dog, but New Zealand has been the making of a rugby career he thought was finished the day he walked out that door disillusioned at Ulster and not knowing where to turn.

“I am having a bit of interest from back home, but I’m waiting to hear whether the Highlanders are going to offer me something, a proper deal. I don’t know where I will be. At the minute, everywhere in the world apart from here is in lockdown and it’s an absolute nightmare, so I’m in no hurry to go back to Ireland or anything purely because of the lockdown.

“I miss everyone at home, I miss my dog. Everyone knows Mafi back in Birr as he is the mascot of our club and would be at all the games. We named him after Lifeimi Mafi, who played with Munster. I used to support Munster all the way up – me and my dad used to go to all the games. He will be twelve in May, so I’m just hoping when I do get home, whenever it is, he will be there.

“I’m enjoying my rugby now and am just focusing on making the team next weekend when we play the Hurricanes, making sure I’m involved. I’m not looking at anything else. I will let everything in the background work its way through and I’ll weigh everything up and see where I want to go and whatnot.

“I’d definitely recommend coming over to any lad in Ireland, even if they are not in a provincial set-up. New Zealand is the home of rugby. They literally live and breathe rugby. Everything is rugby here, it’s immersed in everything and it’s 100 per cent the best place in the world for that. I’m just lucky to be here. Right place, right time and I’ve loved every minute. It has been a journey alright.”

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'I was, F***, this is an All Black hitting me in the head, this is going to be great, he is going to be gone, one of their main players'

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