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Irish lock Regan earns training contract with Super Rugby's Highlanders

The 23-year-old was formerly part of the Ulster academy.

Regan made his Ulster debut a year ago but is now making progress in New Zealand.
Regan made his Ulster debut a year ago but is now making progress in New Zealand.

THIS WILL BE Jack Regan’s first Christmas away from Birr, County Offaly as he finds himself celebrating on the other side of the world in New Zealand.

The 23-year-old former Ulster academy lock will miss his family, of course, but he should be kept well entertained as he spends the holidays with ex-Connacht prop Conán O’Donnell – “a gas man” – and a few other Sligo heads.

Similarly to O’Donnell, Regan headed for New Zealand after Ulster opted not to retain him and the former Ireland U20 second row has made a big success of his move so far.

Regan was virtually ever-present for Otago during their Mitre 10 Cup campaign in recent months and showed such good form that he has secured a training contract with Super Rugby Aotearoa’s Highlanders for 2021. 

It was January of 2020 that 6ft 5ins Regan learned he was being released by Ulster but now he’s looking forward to linking up with Tony Brown’s Highlanders from next month, exactly one year later.

“I’m over the moon now, to be honest,” says Regan as he reflects on a whirlwind year that started with the disappointment of finding out there was no room for him in Ulster soon after making his senior debut against his native Leinster in the Pro14.

“I played that game in the RDS and off the back of that, I was quietly hoping that maybe there would be a development contract but as soon as I got called in for a meeting, I knew I was gone.”

Regan says it was “a bit of a slap in the face” to be informed he wasn’t being kept on but he has no regrets. A back injury kept him sidelined for a year-and-a-half of his three seasons in the Ulster academy, meaning “a lot of my development was lost in that period.

“I’ve come to learn that pro rugby is a business and the coaches have to look after whatever they have to look after,” he continues. “I was unlucky but this opportunity popped up.”

PIC Regan had an excellent Mitre 10 Cup campaign for Otago.

Regan - whose father Daithí won an All-Ireland hurling championship with Offaly in 1994 – laughs now as he recalls how daunting moving up to Ulster had initially seemed after he hadn’t been given a full academy spot in Leinster.

“It’s what, a few hours up the road from Birr but at the time it seemed huge, I was debating if I would move up the road thinking it was so far away from home.

“When I look back on it now and I’m halfway across the world, it’s not a big move at all!”

Regan initially moved to New Zealand in March to join the Dunedin Sharks club – former Ulster prop Bronson Ross was the link – but Covid-19 hit literally a week after the Birr RFC man had arrived.

He briefly thought about turning right around but, thankfully, the lockdown didn’t last too long in New Zealand and Regan was back playing for the Sharks by June, impressing ahead of his Mitre 10 Cup season with Otago.

With former All Blacks lock Tom Donnelly now the head coach of Otago, Regan feels he has made big strides as a player this year.

“It’s a different brand of rugby,” he says. “I didn’t really have experience at that level, I had played a lot of A games but it’s another level up. It’s very quick, a lot of the players are Pacific Islanders, so they’re explosive and fast, so that was a big change.

“There’s a huge emphasis here on throwing the ball around and having the courage to back yourself. That’s a huge difference here.”

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The experience of being released by Ulster also left Regan with a point to prove.

“To be honest, when I was playing at home, I didn’t really have an edge about me. Moving out here, I suppose I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder. On a personal level, bringing that bit of dog is what has really helped me to do well.”

Chiefs among the highlights for Regan this year was helping Otago to take the Ranfurly Shield from Taranaki in September.

jack-regan-and-head-coach-nigel-carolan Regan played for the Ireland U20s in 2017. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Also known as the Log o’ Wood, the storied Ranfurly Shield works on a challenge basis, whereby the holders defend their title in home games. It has been around since the early 1900s and Regan delighted in being part of Otago’s brief stint as the holders.

“Winning the Ranfurly was huge. I didn’t know how big a deal it was but it’s huge over here.

“We actually lost it the week after to Hawke’s Bay, who still have it ever since, but we had a good night that night we won it!”

As he now looks forward to starting his training contract with the Highlanders in January, Regan has also been offered a two-year deal to continue playing Mitre 10 Cup rugby with Otago.

The lure of being closer to home will naturally always be there but Regan is feeling well settled in New Zealand.

“Hopefully, the market up in Ireland and England all opens up because the better I do here, that might open up options up there too. But at the minute I’m loving it here and have no intention of moving anywhere else. Hopefully, I get a shot with the ‘Landers.”

Along with the rugby success, Regan is also able to enjoy the fact that New Zealand essentially has no Covid-related restrictions in day-to-day life. Life is as normal as could be.

“I don’t know how ye are coping,” says Regan. “We’re blessed over here, we’re very lucky.” 

Back home in Birr, Regan’s family are very proud of what he has achieved so far and Daithí hopes to make a trip out to New Zealand in 2021 if the easing of Covid-19 restrictions in terms of international travel allow it.

Jack hurled when he was younger but has no regrets about following the rugby pathway that has led him to Dunedin, even if he thinks he will eventually join fellow Birr men Peter Dooley and Michael Milne, who are with Leinster, in a return to their roots.

“I reckon we will all go back eventually and hurl for Birr one day. I want to go back and do that when I’m done with rugby. Peter was a good hurler as well, strong as an ox. Mikey as well, the boys are well able to hurl, so maybe one day.”

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Murray Kinsella

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