Irish Abroad

'I'd look at Tadhg Beirne and think, 'There's someone I'd love to replicate''

Former Munster scrum-half John Poland is now with the New England Free Jacks in the US.

IT FELT SURREAL for John Poland when he was named man of the match for the Ireland U20s against Wales in Donnybrook in the 2016 Six Nations. It was the first televised game he had played in and his family and friends were all in the crowd, roaring him on.

Though Ireland were edged out by the visiting Welsh, scrum-half Poland shone in a team also including James Ryan, Andrew Porter, and Max Deegan. The future felt and looked very bright for the young Cork man.

john-poland-with-rhun-williams Donall Farmer / INPHO Poland in action against Wales in the 2016 U20 Six Nations. Donall Farmer / INPHO / INPHO

But a frustrating, dispiriting few years of trying to break through with Munster awaited for Poland, who is now based in the US with the New England Free Jacks ahead of the 2020 Major League Rugby season, which kicks off in two weekends’ time.

Poland played four times in the 2016 Six Nations but later that season, in a cruel 48-hour window, he was dropped from the U20s squad for the World Championship and also told there was no place for him in Munster’s academy. 

“I was just gutted,” recalls the 23-year-old.

He got a lifeline, however, when his phone rang a couple of months later and Anthony Foley’s name popped up on the screen. The coach asked him to join the senior squad for pre-season, leading to a friendly appearance against Zebre, then a three-month academy contract and a further extension until the end of the campaign.

Poland excelled for the Munster A team in that 2016/17 season as they won the British and Irish Cup. Again, things were looking up but, again, Poland was dealt a major blow.

“I was starting all the A games and we had an unbelievable campaign,” he explains. “I played quite well but just before the final against Jersey, I was told my academy contract wouldn’t be extended at the end of the season.

“That was the week of the final… I was bewildered because I was starting all these A games, winning in the B&I Cup.”

What was the reasoning?

“I’m not really sure, it was small things about my passing. Small things that I more saw as work-ons than necessarily reasons for not being kept on. They were things that could have been worked on and improved, they weren’t long-term issues, they were very solvable. I’m not sure really…

“But anyway, I went out and played in that final and it was one of my best games ever.”

john-poland-and-sam-arnold James Crombie / INPHO Poland celebrates the 2017 B&I Cup success with Sammy Arnold. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Back out of the Munster picture for a second time, Poland was assessing his options when his phone rang again. This time it was Rassie Erasmus, the director of rugby at the province.

Again, a request to do pre-season with the seniors. Poland got straight to work and earned himself a training contract for the rest of that 2017/18 season. Erasmus wasn’t around for much longer, departing in December 2017, but things appeared to be fine for Poland as he made his senior Munster debut off the bench in the Pro14 clash with Zebre in February of 2018.

But, for a second time, it wasn’t to be.

“It just didn’t work out because Rassie had left, so I was just in between a rock and a hard place,” says Poland, who captained PBC during his school days.

“Johann hadn’t seen much of me, there were only a few A games. It was fair enough and they were planning for the next year.”

Poland continued to shine with his club side, UCC, in the All-Ireland League last season and also played for the Ireland Clubs side, while finishing up his degree in Finance before taking the leap and agreeing to a move to the US.

Whatever about how things worked out for him with Munster, Poland showed serious resilience to deal with the setbacks.

“I’d like to think so,” he says. “It was tough, I was low on confidence for a while and being young, it does take its toll. I’m still only 23, it’s not like I’m an old man!

“Coming to Boston, I’m really eager to get going and try to reach some new heights, reach my potential and believe in myself that I can play at a high level and push on, maybe even someday come back and play with one of the provinces and push for an Irish spot.

“Tadhg Beirne would be a good example of a guy that I’d look at and think, ‘There’s someone I’d love to replicate,’ get the opportunity he got, prove myself for a team, and then hopefully another club comes knocking.”

john-poland-on-the-pitch-before-the-game Tommy Dickson / INPHO Poland before a Munster A game in 2018. Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

Beirne’s route was out of Leinster, over to the Scarlets in Wales, then back to Ireland with Munster and the national team. Poland’s first step brings him to the US.

Having arrived in Boston in late December, he will be part of the exciting third season for Major League Rugby [MLR] with the Free Jacks, one of three new clubs involved. The 12-team league is split into Western and Eastern conferences with 17 match weeks before the play-offs.

High-profile stars like Ma’a Nonu, Tendai ‘The Beast’ Mtawarira, Digby Ioane, Mathieu Bastareaud, Rene Ranger and Juan Manuel Leguizamón have all joined rival clubs and Poland is excited to play against that kind of quality.

He has plenty of Irish influence around him at the Free Jacks, with captain Tadhg Leader, Sean McNulty, Ronan McCusker, and Conor Kindregan all involved. It was his former Cork Con team-mate, Kindregan, who first suggested the move to Poland, aware as he was that the Free Jacks were looking for a scrum-half with strong kicking skills.

Poland is also looking forward to playing against some of the other Irish players dotted around the league, including more ex-Cork Con friends in Rugby United New York scrum-half Jason Higgins and Colorado Raptors out-half Tomás Quinlan. 

The Free Jacks’ opening two games of the campaign are in Las Vegas as part of the league’s ‘Vegas Weekend’ to promote the sport. First up are Greg McWilliams’ heavily Irish-influence RUNY, including Higgins. 

“A bit of a change from Temple Hill,” laughs Poland.

The promise of new life experiences is partly what attracted Poland to the MLR, but his rugby ambition is the key driver. Eager to become a more authoritative scrum-half and a better decision-maker, he’s enjoying the responsibility he has been handed in Boston as one of their foreign signings.

The US wasn’t on the radar for players with professional ambitions only a few short years ago, but Poland has been watching with interest since MLR launched and is now bidding to put himself back on the map with the Free Jacks.

“Once I found out that there definitely wasn’t going to be a pathway for me in Munster, I was looking elsewhere and I was watching the MLR. Ben Mitchell, who I was playing with in UCC, was in Austin and I knew a few other guys going over and playing.

john-poland-is-tacked-by-ronan-foley Oisin Keniry / INPHO Poland in UCC colours last season. Oisin Keniry / INPHO / INPHO

“I was thinking it might be a great opportunity to go over, play as well as I could, hopefully people would be watching and I could get rid of whatever perception was there of me in Ireland as a player, just start fresh and see where it went. So I was really keen.

“It was a bit of a reality check graduating from college too. I had to look at what I really wanted to do and I really want to give rugby a crack. I’d love to come back to Europe and play if the opportunity arose after this season or whatever.

“With all the big names and the standard increasing, it would be good to show I can play at this level and people might be watching.

“Whether that be in the Mitre 10 Cup in New Zealand, going to Australia, in the UK, back home in Ireland with any of the provinces, I’d be open and I’d just love the opportunity to push myself and reach my potential.

“When I was in Ireland, I thought I had the potential to play at a higher level and it didn’t happen, but I’m keen to work hard and give it another crack.”

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