Jack Regan is proving pretty astute at making the right decisions. His decision to go to New Zealand to play lower-level club rugby to revive his stalled pro career has turned out to be inspirational; his decision to remain in the country during lockdown was nothing short of visionary, and his decision not to retaliate to Joe Moody’s open-palmed slap on his Super Rugby debut was further evidence that this is a 23-year-old with an old head on young shoulders.

Like any aspiring young rugby player in Ireland with designs on pulling on a green jersey, being told he was no longer wanted at provincial level was a body blow that Regan could have so easily crumpled under. But Regan refused to let Ulster’s decision to let him go get the better of him and trusted his instincts, and the advice of those around him, to chance his arm in Dunedin.

After a year on the South Island’s south-east coast, Regan has played every level of rugby possible, from the amateur Dunedin Sharks set up through to Otago in the semi-pro Mitre 10, and now the Highlanders in Super Rugby Aotearoa. With two Highlanders appearances to his name, Regan has already doubled his PRO14 tally in three seasons with Ulster. Text messages from strangers don’t always work out as well as this.

“Out of the blue, I get a message from a lad in New Zealand, an ex-Ulster prop called Bronson Ross, asking me if I wanted to join Dunedin Sharks,” recalled Regan, while on a video call from New Zealand.

“I didn’t know him and I was thinking, ‘who is this fella?’ My first thought was, ‘I’m not going to the other side of the world to New Zealand’. But then I chatted a bit with my dad (Offaly All-Ireland hurling winner Daithí), who would be a big influence, and my agent John Andress and I thought ‘hold on a minute, I don’t have anything to lose’, and a week and a bit later, I was on a plane out there. I got over in March and the week after, we had Paddy’s Day. The week after that, we went into lockdown, a proper lockdown, for about six weeks. It’s been a bit of a journey.”

Arriving with no baggage

When Regan landed in Dunedin, he arrived without clothes or any clue as to where he was. “I thought I was back in Ireland, the airport was in the middle of nowhere,” he joked. Having forgotten to collect his luggage before the connecting flight from Auckland International, Regan could have thought the trip had disaster written all over it. But not even wearing hand-me-downs, or lockdown, could take away from the excitement that he could be on to something special.

“I was lucky in a way, I moved in with two lads who play with the local club in Dunedin, the Sharks, and we’ve got a nice house, and the beach is only two minutes up the road, and I was there every day. I got through it because I knew why I was there, to play rugby.”

It soon became clear the Sharks were below Regan’s pay grade, as much as he loved playing for them, and not before long, he’d become the lynchpin of the Otago lineout, bringing out the ‘dog’ inside him that, frustratingly, he felt he’d never allowed to happen at Ulster.

When the chance to go home arose, Regan opted to look for a job in the hope that the Highlanders, who were looking for second-row injury cover, would come calling in the meantime. Luckily for him, Highlanders boss Tony Brown had read the script.

Mean and Moody

Regan, from Birr, a heritage town in the heart of Ireland, joined the Highlanders in mid-January and, all of a sudden, players of the calibre of Aaron Smith and Liam Squire were team-mates. Undaunted, Regan got his head down and wasted no time in making a lasting impression. Two minutes into his debut, against the Crusaders, 50-cap All Blacks prop Joe Moody took a disliking to the 1.99m, 108kg second-row forward, setting about the Irishman with a flurry of blows to the head.

“The clips have been doing the rounds at home, I have been tagged in that many videos and articles,” he revealed. “I was holding him by the collar and, the next minute, I was getting slapped in the face. Everyone was asking me why didn’t I hit him back. But it was my debut and I didn’t want to be red-carded on my debut, and he was an All Black and he was never going to get a red card. It was handbags really.”

Regan had had enough of flailing arms and death stares by then, anyway, having taken part in the pre-game Haka. For him, the cultural challenge was just that, a challenge.

“At the beginning of pre-season, they told us there was going to be a Haka before the opening game. I thought ‘Jesus, how is that going to go?’ But in my head, I thought, ‘that’ll be grand, I’m not going to be playing anyway so I won’t be in the Haka’.

“Everybody learned it twice a week, every week, and it was awkward doing the actions. Everyone was looking over at me, you could tell they were thinking, ‘look at the tall Irish lad’ and I was looking back at them, thinking ‘I don’t know what I am doing’. But I nailed the actions and I learnt the words the week before the game. We got into positions, and obviously, all the Maori boys and the Pacific Island boys were upfront, and Ash Dixon, the leader of the Haka, said to me, ‘Jack, you’re in the back corner’, obviously trying to hide me away! To do the Haka was awesome.”

“Next level” skills

The immensely likeable Regan is the second Irishman to play for the Highlanders in recent times, after prop Conán O'Donnell, while ex-Blackrock College man Ollie Jager is at the Crusaders. Whether he remains in New Zealand beyond the end of the season in May is unclear at the moment. But the skill level of the players, from one to 15, has made a lasting impression whatever the future holds.

“Back at home, there was a huge emphasis on scrum, lineout and maul but here the scrum and the lineout are more of a platform to play off. The other big difference is the skill of everybody, especially the pack, there are lads here whose handling is next level, and here that is a basic requirement. They grow up playing the game all their lives whereas back home, you have a mix of lads from a GAA background, a rugby background and things like that.

“The coaches here are all about backing yourself, whether that is throwing an offload or a little tip-on pass out the back, and if you make a mistake, you make a mistake.”

Leaving Ireland for New Zealand was clearly not one of them.

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