By Joe Harvey
“Mike Rogers told us that he was walking to the parking lot before the first game and some guy asked if we were playing New York this week, Mike said we were and the other guy just said, ‘you better beat them’,” John Poland laughed.
“That was it. This guy didn’t know about any of our other results, he didn’t care, he just wanted us to beat New York.
“A lot of us are not from Boston, so we didn’t get the rivalry until that, but after we won in New York last time, people were coming to us and telling us how delighted they were that we beat them.”
Last time that the New England Free Jacks played Rugby New York in Hoboken, New Jersey, at the end of the 80 minutes, it was the men from Quincy that ended the game victorious.
Winning the game 38-29, Beaudein Waaka scored 23 points and Poland was one of the try scorers that cold afternoon with the New York City skyline to the back of the stadium.
Now heading back down the coast for another East Conference clash, the second of three that the two teams will play out this season, the third and final encounter coming on June 4 at Veterans Memorial Stadium.
Coming out of a bye week, your Free Jacks head up their division, their last game before the break a 24-22 win over two-time Major League Rugby champions, the Seattle Seawolves.
Taking part in his third season with the Free Jacks, Poland came to New England after his time with United Rugby Championship side, Munster.
During his time with the team based out of Limerick, the 25-year-old made one senior appearance, with many of his opportunities for the province coming for their ‘A’ side in the British & Irish Cup, a competition he and his teammates won in the 2016/17 season.
Also earning multiple Ireland U20 caps in 2016, it took a message from a former Free Jack, Conor Kindregan, to set the wheels in motion for a move across the North Atlantic.
“One of the things about our squad is that nobody’s past has been perfect,” Poland said. “Everyone has a good understanding to not get ahead of themselves and we are all pretty grounded, normal guys.
“Although it was my dream to play for Ireland and play for Munster, once I realized that was never going to be an option, it was like being hit pretty hard.
“Once your one and only real dream is taken away, it is pretty tough and pretty daunting, because I had just finished my finance degree and was faced with the option of getting a job or playing professional rugby somewhere else.
“I was over rugby by that point. I was sick of having to be in certain places at certain times whilst my friends were going on holiday, and I was missing out on all those memories.”
It is safe to say that Poland is enjoying his time with the Free Jacks, the scrum-half is a regular starter and has formed a lethal partnership with fly-half, Beaudein Waaka.
Coming into this weekend’s game with New York having started the last six games in a row, the 25-year-old only missing out on starts in two games thanks to a hamstring injury sustained in the season opener against the NOLA Gold.
For all his experiences in Ireland, Poland says that he is grateful for the road he has gone down, having made such strong friendships while pulling on red, white and blue.
“My whole time at Munster, I was saying at the end of every week ‘I haven’t been picked again’,” Poland said.
“It is tough being the bin juice, because you have a perception of yourself which is obviously greater than what the coaches see you as.
“I always thought I had the talent and the ability to play, but it never worked out. It has been a blessing in disguise, because I came over here.
“Our first fame was in Las Vegas, which was a bit different to playing a B&I Cup game in Rotherham. Then a couple of weeks later we were in San Diego saying a couple of blocks away from Pacific Beach.
“Meeting all these other lads, like Poasa Waqanibu, Timothee Guillimin, guys I am still contact with, that are friends for life with, and some of the best lads I have ever met.
“Guys have come from all over the world to play for this team, from different cultures and speaking different languages, but are some of the nicest guys and my most genuine friends.”
For the Seattle game, Poland was able to have his father and uncle in the bleachers. The pair came over from Ireland to watch the 25-year-old play rugby in MLR for the first time, the global pandemic having prevented them from doing so any time sooner, an emotional moment for the half-back in particular.
“This year, having my dad over was amazing,” Poland said. “He was my coach when I was younger, he would always come to my games, travelled the length of the country to do that, went to France to watch my first Ireland U19 games and England to watch me play U20s.
“He is definitely my number one fan, always sends me feedback and is never too critical, definitely has a false sense of how good I am, but I think everyone’s dad does.”
In recent weeks, the University College Cork graduate has also been joined by his girlfriend, Sophie, in Quincy, who has finally got to put faces to the names her partner has told her over the past two years.
Being able to see loved ones in person is a marked difference to lase season in particular, as Poland spent half a year away from his friends and family last season, those in Ireland largely confined to home as a result of national lockdowns.
“The first two years, I was sending them photos in the group chats [with friends and family], and they were just saying ‘it must be nice’,” Poland said.
“They were locked up at home in Ireland, not allowed to more than five kilometers from the house, and there was me sending photos from San Diego, LA, Manhattan Beach and Fenway Park, where 20,000 were singing Sweet Caroline on a Tuesday.
“Being away for six months was pretty tough as well, it was the longest I had gone without seeing them all and it is tough talking to someone on Zoom.
“It gets you through for a while, but after that is pretty tough and when I first went back last year, my girlfriend [Sophie] picked me up and it was almost like meeting a new person.”
With seven games to go between now and the conclusion of the regular season, the job on paper seems simple for New England.
Only two of those games will be on the road, the trip to New York, a late-May trip to the Toronto Arrows the final away game.
Currently in pole position to not only gain a postseason place, the Free Jacks could also get an extra bye week before a Conference Final.
But whilst on the face of it those objectives seem achievable, Poland for one is not counting any chickens, the 25-year-old knows that he and his teammates can get even better and finally stake a claim to compete in knockout rugby for the first time in the team’s history.
“We definitely have aspirations to win the whole thing,” Poland said. “No team goes into their start of year meeting and says, let’s just do our best.
“From the get-go, we knew we had a group of players that were more than capable of competing, getting to the playoffs and potentially winning it.
“Sitting at the top of the table, I don’t think we are any more or less confident about ourselves. We know we may be ahead right now, but we have won a few games pretty narrowly.
“We just about beat Austin and Atlanta; it is not like it has been a case of one team being better than the other. There is serious parity in the league.
“We have probably rode our luck a bit so far, so all going well we will be at the top come the end of the season, but we are definitely not going to get ahead of ourselves by chatting about the playoffs or finals.
“This is my third season with the Free Jacks, and I have never played a playoff game. We have got some passionate fans and we all enjoy playing at home, so we are looking forward to that stretch of games.
“If we win a few of those, we will cement our place in the playoffs and then it is up for grabs at that point. I would love to play in a playoff game over here, it would be unreal.”