Written By: Joe Harvey
Josh Larsen will forever be known as Free Jack #1. In 2020, the Canada international led the team out for their first ever game of professional rugby against New York in Las Vegas. At the end of that 80 minutes in Nevada, New England would finish with a 1-4 record after the season was called to a close as a result of the breakout of Covid-19.
Over a year later Larsen would be back, again picked out as the leader of the club. His experiences spoke for themselves, born in Nanaimo, British Columbia, the 27-year-old grew up in New Zealand and representing Northland for a time before making his Canada debut in 2017.
Several more seasons in the Bunnings NPC would follow, but the pull of North America and the opportunity to play in Major League Rugby was clearly an appealing one. Playing for the Austin Elite in 2019, 2022 will mark the second-row’s third season in New England.
He and his partner, Sydney, now call Boston home, the pair living in the Quincy area for much of the offseason. The ‘City of Presidents’ is where the Free Jacks have decided to move their operations to, the headquarters, offices and performance center all under one roof in the Granite Trust Building.
“It is exciting for us as players, especially for someone that had been there from the start, knowing that we that we were moving to this new city and we have a really great setup now,” Larsen said.
“It was good before, but we have taken it to another level. For returning players, players like myself, we are really excited, and the excitement has made the transition easier to be honest.
“The transition has been really good, and guys like Tom Kindley (Performance Director) have done an outstanding job. The guys who have been playing club rugby out here have helped out too, so seeing guys helping out with the gym and seeing what it is now, it is pretty awesome.
“It is a longer-term plan that the Free Jacks have, to have this setup close to Boston. We have got a gym, turf space where we can do skills, offices, physio rooms, the works.”
NEW INFLUENCES ON THE FIELD
Aside from the surroundings that players will find themselves in every day, they also have a new coaching staff. Having gathered in Massachusetts at the start of January, members of the squad got to grips with a new coaching staff that have come from far and wide to contend at the top of the Eastern Conference.
Scott Mathie (Head Coach) has come from South Africa after numerous years coaching the Griquas, whilst Mike Rogers (Assistant Coach) and Ewan Brumwell (strength and conditioning coach) have both arrived from New Zealand, each with extensive experience in elite rugby overseas.
Preparations for 2022 began over Zoom, players strewn across the globe, sitting down at all hours of the day in order to discuss what the future had in store for the Free Jacks. In 2021, under Ryan Martin the team finished fourth in the Eastern Conference, some 15 points away from reaching the playoffs.
A new campaign offers a new chance at postseason rugby, Larsen explaining what has been built upon in recent weeks to get the team firing for the upcoming season.
“Scott came in and he was really open to what worked well and what didn’t,” Larsen said. “Obviously he is going to bring his own changes, but he was really mindful of coming her and not changing the whole program of what we did well and what we didn’t.
“In South Africa, there is a lot more focus on physicality, and having Mike on board around the contact area has been a big focus for us. A lot of stuff has been kept the same, but I would mostly say we are adding an edge to our physicality.”
Signing a new deal to stay with the Free Jacks late last year, Larsen played in the preseason game against Old Glory DC last weekend and will no doubt be in contention this weekend for the season opener against the NOLA Gold.
“This year is about creating an identity, being at this new home base, because we are going to be there long-term,” Larsen said.
“That’s an organizational point of view, as a player the idea is to build this fortress and this base in Quincy. When we came in, we hit the ground running because housing was sorted, everything was ready for us.
“We are going to take it one game at a time. It is important for us at the start of the season to get those wins and making sure we are super competitive.”
LIFE OFF THE FIELD
When doing research on Larsen, what quickly comes up is the 27-year-old’s love for coffee. Having upwards of five cups a day, he laughs as the topic is brought up, before quickly explaining his affection for the activity of making the perfect cup.
“Put it this way, it is almost my morning meditation,” he said. “It is a process to get a good cup of coffee, a lot of people can’t be bothered with it. I get up and I love the process of making a coffee.
“I have got a bit geeky about it. Everything from weighing beans to trying different beans and the different processes of beans. I have got a bit into it. Some of the boys have called me a bit of a coffee snob, which is a bit harsh.
“I wouldn’t say to the people of New England that I hate Dunkin’, but I’m not far off. I don’t even drink it for the caffeine. That sounds weird, but I just enjoy a good cup of coffee like a lot of people do.”
Despite his branding as a ‘coffee snob’, it hasn’t stopped teammates making their way over to Larsen’s house in order to enjoy a cup at the end of the day. It has even added to the development of players’ relationship, enjoying a coffee whilst getting to know each other, a process no doubt contributing to their work on the field.
“I love going to cafés on away trips,” Larsen said. “I really love spending $4 on a coffee, get eight guys chatting in the café for 45 minutes. It is money well spent in my opinion; gathering together to have a bit of a chitchat.
“I think it is cool. In New Orleans there is a couple of good places we will ger to this weekend to try out. It is usually the same boys turning up and we’ll get a coffee during our time off and it’s a great way to socialize.”
Even when not playing, rugby is still a significant part of Larsen’s life. During the Fall, he coached Clemson in the SCRC, as well as with Beantown RFC. Beantown are Boston’s highest ranking women’s rugby team and compete in the Women’s Premier League.
Although the competition hasn’t taken place since 2019 as a result of the global pandemic, the league will return in the Spring, with Beantown’s first game taking place in mid-April. In addition to coaching those sides, Larsen also coaches with the Free Jacks Academy with players at a youth and high school level.
“With New England, a lot of people love their rugby here,” the lock said. “More than anywhere else I have been in the States. If I can get out and amongst it, I really enjoy it.
“There is a bucket load of clubs, and it is important that we make sure they are on board and making sure that we are going out there and those relationships are healthy.
“The Free Jacks have done a good job of making sure that everyone is getting a chance, players are getting looked at with the Academy during the offseason, but from younger ages up.
“I just want to be growing rugby because it has given me so much.”