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Dublin: 10°C Wednesday 21 October 2020
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'I had to fight a bit harder... I sort of grew up despising the big private schools'

Connacht wing John Porch could have retired from rugby as an U20 player.

JOHN PORCH WAS in a little town called Coober Pedy in South Australia, about eight hours south of Ayers Rock, doing a rugby coaching clinic with a mate when Connacht boss Andy Friend called him up out of the blue.

Then part of the Australia 7s set-up, Porch had stayed in touch after his former head coach moved to Connacht in 2018, but he certainly wasn’t expecting to get a contract offer and the chance to move to Ireland.

There in the very isolated Coober Pedy, Porch instantly pounced on the chance to take his rugby career in a completely new direction.

“Friendy said to me, ‘Porchy, I’ve got an offer here for you, it’s not going to be here for long, but would you take it?’” explains Porch. “I didn’t even have to hesitate.”

JP Porch scores for Connacht against Montpellier.

[Click here if you cannot view the clip above]

Still contracted to Rugby Australia but not enjoying the 7s programme as much since Friend had left, Porch soon negotiated his way out of the deal and copper-fastened his move to Connacht, which he describes as a “godsend.”

He’s honest enough to admit he had never heard of Connacht before Friend’s move, knowing of Irish rugby only through Leinster’s exploits in the Champions Cup, which garnered attention Down Under.

Learning more about the provinces and the Pro14 along the way, Porch has been one of Connacht’s success stories of this season, making a smooth transition back into 15s rugby after four seasons as a full-time 7s player.

With five tries in his 15 starts for Connacht and some robust defending, 26-year-old Porch has impressed in his first season as a professional 15-a-side rugby player.

“It’s been an absolute joy to come over here,” says Porch, though he is as eager as every player currently cooped up at home to get back into action as soon as possible.

Moving to Ireland with his partner, Ella, and playing for Connacht are certainly things Porch never envisaged. He has had to work hard to make a career for himself in rugby, so it makes sense fort us to go back to the very start.

Having lived in the tiny bush town of Cumnock until he was five, Porch and his mother moved to Tamworth – four and a half hours northwest of Sydney and “about the same size as Galway” – where he started playing rugby, the love for union coming from his mum’s family.

“My parents are split up and my dad always said to me that if I lived with him, I’d be playing rugby league. So I’m kinda glad I was with mum, I guess!” says Porch with a laugh.

He went to Farrer Memorial Agricultural High School, showing his athletic talent in swimming and athletics but becoming smitten with rugby.

Farrer Memorial had produced a couple of rugby league pros but was certainly not renowned as a school where future union stars learned the ropes. To his credit, Porch earned an Australian Schoolboys jersey in 2012, having battled his way through several other representative squads to get there. 

john-porch John Porch has had an impressive first season for Connacht. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I definitely did have to fight a bit harder,” says Porch. “I went to a little country school and sort of grew up despising all the big private schools because there’s a bit of stigma, and they get spoon-fed everything, I guess you could say.

“I had to fight a bit harder and I got a little bit of recognition in my last year but still didn’t get too much.”

Having helped the Aussie team to beat their New Zealand counterparts in Auckland, Porch watched as some of his team-mates rocketed up through the professional ranks in the years that followed. He wasn’t picked up as a future star, but made his own way.

Immediately after school, he decided to move to Sydney and chase the dream, joining the Northern Suburbs club, where Keith Gleeson used to play. 

“I knew if I wanted to make it in rugby, I would have to go to Sydney,” says Porch. “Once I finished up at school, I went home for about a week, then packed my bags up and moved down.”

He started out with Norths’ colts team, the U20s, and the club got him an apprenticeship with a plumbing company. Disaster struck early on though, as Porch suffered a compound fracture and dislocation of his ankle during a game.

“That was horrific,” recalls Porch. “There was possible amputation talk from the doctors, then the possibility that I would never play rugby again.

“But it all went well in the end. I was doing rehab for about 10 months, which was shorter than they expected.”

Having been promised that his plumbing gig would be waiting when he was able to return, Porch was gutted to find out it was gone after his recovery. Instead, a club-mate offered him a new apprenticeship in carpentry and he grabbed the chance.

Having impressed in his second season at Colts level, Porch stepped up to senior rugby in the Shute Shield – the premier grade club competition in New South Wales – in 2015, while also impressing in sevens competitions.

spsingapore-world-rugby-sevens-series Porch with a spectacular finish for the Australia 7s in 2018. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

His form earned him a place with the Sydney Rays in that year’s National Rugby Championship – the level below Super Rugby in Australia – and though he managed only four starts after injuries to players in front of him, Porch scored three tries and did enough to catch the attention of the national 7s team.

His rise was unstoppable at this stage. Just nine months after his very first involvement in the 7s set-up, head coach Friend selected Porch to go to the 2016 Rio Olympics, to the shock of the player himself.

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“That was such a whirlwind nine months for me, getting my debut tournament on the World Series in January and flying to the Olympics in August. I never thought that would happen.”

The opening ceremony was “one of the most awesome things I’ve been involved in,” while Porch revelled in living in the athletes’ village, where he would see Usain Bolt walking into the food hall only to be mobbed by fellow athletes desperate for selfies. The Aussie’s quarter-final exit was a disappointment.

Porch also helped the Aussies to a couple of fourth-placed finishes on the Series and delighted in working with Friend.

“We always had a good player-coach relationship and also a good relationship outside of rugby,” says Porch.

“He’s taught me a lot of stuff about rugby and stuff outside of rugby. That’s sort of his goal, to try to improve the players outside of the game as well and he helped me a lot with that.”

Friend has surely been pleased with Porch’s impact since arriving last summer. The 6ft 1ins flyer has shown his creative finishing ability with efforts like the one against Montpellier in the Champions Cup, while also digging in defensively.

Porch, who has also started a game at fullback, feels the rugby in this part of the world is naturally a little more conservative due to the weather, but he’s not complaining on that front.

“I thoroughly enjoy it,” she says. “It’s a lot more enjoyable than training and playing in 35-degree weather in Sydney.”

john-porch-scores-his-sides-third-try Porch has scored five tries for Connacht this season. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

He and Ella have settled into life in Salthill, where they’re taking daily walks to alleviate the boredom of being confined to home. He’s training away like the rest of the Connacht set-up, spending plenty of time playing Fortnite and Call of Duty, but also continuing to study for his online bachelor’s degree in Health and Movement.

Having had to pack in his carpentry apprenticeship at the halfway point as his 7s career took off, Porch had been keen to get back studying and is now two semesters in, while planning to move on to a Physical Education teaching degree in the future.

With the hope now being that the rugby season might be back up and running in July, plans to travel around Europe are now looking rocky, but Porch says he and Ella will make the best of it and are keen to see more of Ireland too.

He’s as hungry as anyone to get back onto the pitch and continue his rise in rugby, one that has taken him from humble beginnings to the Olympics and on to Ireland. Having fought hard for every step, Porch can take some pride in what he has achieved so far.

“Especially when that injury happened, there were two ways I could have gone.

“I could have given up on rugby or done what I did. I knuckled down, got the rehab done and it’s worked out for the better I think.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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