"They were thinking of amputation" - John Porch and a rugby career that was never supposed to happen
"The parents all got together and said, 'This is not on. We want our kids to play rugby'. Thankfully they did!"
Connacht supporters - and any lover of good rugby, in fairness - were thankful, too, after John Porch scored another blinding try for a side that are chuffed to have him.
At the age of 18, Porch suffered an ankle break so bad that a doctor told him his career was over. A decade on, he is flying in Ireland.
On Monday evening, the news arrived of the Australian signing on with the Westerners for two more seasons, at least. By the time his next contract talks come up, he could well be an Ireland international.
Just two minutes into Connacht's Challenge Cup game against Brive, at The Sportsground, the hosts got a penalty and, rather than kick for touch, Jack Carty spun and launched a cross-field kick that a flying Porch took in the air before crashing down to score a real beauty.
— Connacht Rugby (@connachtrugby) January 14, 2023
Pushing his chips in for the green cause
That type of score is what makes Jack Carty and John Porch so revered, out West. It is one of the reasons Andy Friend will be missed when he heads back to Australia, at the end of the season.
Connacht supporters will be hoping that the absence of a man that has been so instrumental in Porch's will not lead to the winger seeking new pastures elsewhere. One carrot Connacht could dangle would be him becoming Ireland qualified and emulating the likes of Mack Hansen and James Lowe, but he will have to wait until September 2024. The other carrots include an improved contract and Champions Cup rugby, and one may be linked to the other.
With Connacht fans all-in on Porch, Friend urging Australia to consider the winger in this World Cup year and both Andy Farrell and Mike Catt keeping tabs on him, as well as clubs in France, England and Australia, it is a nice position to be in.
All of this, 10 years after he was told he may never play rugby again.
During a recent visit to Dublin, John Porch sat down to talk with House of Rugby [LISTEN from 36:50 below] about skipping league for union, learning a trade, bouncing back from a career-threatening injury and making a new life for himself in the West of Ireland.
'Mum, I'm moving to Sydney'
"When I first started high school," John Porch recalls, "my school didn't have a rugby team. I was actually forced to play a game of league - I played 20 minutes, off the bench, and found it absolutely boring."
In his school, Farrer Memorial Agricultural in Tamworth (New South Wales), Porch and a clatter of other lads his age were keen on union. The students leaned on their parents who, in turn, leaned on the school and a rugby union team was born. The school would pit themselves against five other 'day' schools from the region but the big game was an annual joust against a private school from Armadale.
"It was very much a case of going up against this fancy, private school - 'We hate you. We want to beat the living hell out of you!'"
Porch was mainly on the wing, tried out 10 'but hated it' then had a regular run at fullback. He was starting to turn heads and switched back to the wing when he got call-ups to representative sides.
Once school days, and rugby rivalries, were done, Porch says he became quite friendly with several of those Armadale players. For Porch, Tamworth was his world for so much of his formative years. The region has a population of around 60,000 but swells to 90,000+ once a year when it hosts a big country and western music festival.
Porch's parents split up when he was young, and some of his time was spent up on his dad's farm. Porch has a brother on his mum's side of the family and two younger sister's on his dad's side. He learned to drive a 'buggy around the bush' but it was an automatic. When that car broke down, in Sydney, he borrowed a manual and had to learn all over again, in a more high-pressured and unforgiving setting.
His father would often travel about to other farms, and regions, shearing sheep and Porch would help out, when and where he could. He recalls selecting a course, in Year 10 at school, on sheep-shearing and all he can say now is, "I don't know how my dad did it for about 20 years. It's one of the hardest things ever. Tough work."
The sheep-shearing life may not have been for him but rugby was already starting to look like a viable option when he was making age-grade regional selections at 16. When he was 17, he was called into the national, indigenous squad. With them, he got to experience division two of a national schoolboys competition and drove him towards making a New South Wales selection, where he competed in division one.
"In New South Wales, the only place you go if you want to make a go of it in rugby is in Sydney. So, as soon as I was finished with what you'd call the Leaving Cert here, I packed up from home said, 'Mum, I'm moving to Sydney' and was down there from 18."
'That just absolutely killed me'
Being one of a legion of promising youngsters chasing a foothold in the Sydney rugby scene, John Porch knew he would need to start earning his keep. He took up a plumbing apprenticeship and was up at 5:30am to get over to sites for his shifts.
Called up for the national academy, he would often go in for 5am gym sessions then get trains an hour into the suburbs to be on-site. After work, he was back at the academy for more sessions.
He started playing for Northern Suburbs Rugby Club and shared a house with four other 'Colts' [Under 20s] from the club. "Cheap rent, living off bare minimum food, getting up and out for work every day and have a good time on the weekends!"
All was going well, with the Colts and the plumbing, for around six months. Then, Porch suffered an injury that came close to ending his career.
"I suffered a compound fracture (ankle dislocation) and had to take 10 months off everything; moved back home with my mum... That was probably one of the toughest periods of my life. When it happened. I didn't really know how serious it was until I woke up from the operation.
"What I was told was that when I was first going into the operating theatre, they were thinking of amputation. The doctor that did the surgery was Dr. (Stephen) Ruff. He came in the day after my surgery, doing the rounds, and said, 'The surgery went well but it looks like you'll probably never play rugby again'. That just absolutely killed me."
Still only 18, Porch starting talking to his Northern Suburbs coach about staying involved in the game as a coach, instead of playing. He had just settled on his dream profession and was not keen on giving it up so soon.
However, he started doing some rehabilitation work with a physio that had experience from the Wallabies set-up and he was advised that not all hope was lost. "He reckoned I could get back playing with 18 months," Porch recalls, "so I carried on with him. He was amazing and my body responded to everything and I was back playing within 10 months."
'I looked like I'd seen a ghost'
John Porch was back playing with the colts and getting the attention of those involved with Australia's Sevens programme. His first taste of Sevens was in school, when his side got to the final of a big New South Wales competition, before progressing on to nationals against teams from Queensland.
15s was his goal but he was convinced to take some run-outs in Sevens. He played for the North Harbour Rays in the National Rugby Championship and was then asked to go into a training camp with Australia Sevens. Andy Friend was the head coach at the time and the 21-year-old was fast-tracked, in advance of the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
Porch can still recall the slog of a Sevens 'heat camp' in Darwin, where he and the other Olympic hopefuls were put through the wringer. 14 of the 16 players would make the cut, the other two would be gutted. Friend let players know, one by one, whether they were heading to Brazil, or not. He says:
"Andy will tell you, he told me I was going and he said I looked like I'd seen a ghost. I couldn't believe it. It was unbelievable to be told you were going to the Olympics and going to be representing your country."
The Aussies got to enjoy a few days of soaking in the Olympic Village experience, and some sights around Rio, as the ladies side stormed to Olympic gold. Porch and his teammates reached the quarter finals but were well beaten by eventual bronze medallists, South Africa. He returned to Northern Suburbs, played Sevens at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and was plotting another run at the Olympics when Andy Friend, now with Connacht, gave him a call.
'I hadn't even told my wife!'
In 2019, the only experience of Ireland that John Porch had was playing their Sevens rugby side. "They would always play this wide to wide game," he recalls, "and you'd be out on your absolute bollix."
He harboured ambitions of playing Super Rugby but never got the shout from the Waratahs, or other Aussie franchises. Andy Friend had led Australia to the Sydney Sevens in 2018 with Porch and Ben O'Donnell two of his key players. Both would hear from Friend when he landed the job of Connacht head coach.
"We were doing a scouting tour in South Australia, looking for indigenous talent," Porch recalls. "We were in Coober Pedy, which is in the middle of Australia (600km from the coast), at the time. Friendy had first called me and said there would probably not be an opportunity to get me over that season [2018/19] but there probably would be, the following year.
"So it was when I was in Coober Pedy, when Friendy called again and said, 'Can you come over in four months? We've got a contract for you'.
"I said yes on the phone, right there. I hadn't even told my wife!"
After I got off the phone, I called Ella and said, "We're moving to Ireland." And she said, "What?!"
Porch and Ella, who is also from Tamworth, had just signed a one-year lease on a house but they would have to get out of that. They were heading to Ireland.
Heading to Galway and possibly pulling on another green jersey
John Porch and Ella got married last summer having really gone through a practical pre-marriage course during the Covid pandemic. For well over a year, and the lockdowns that came with it, Porch had Ella and Connacht Rugby.
"I was able to get out for training with Connacht," says Porch, "but I felt so bad for Ella. She was stuck in, and around, the house for a year and a half. You had that 2k radius to get out for walks. We lived near the promenade in Salthill so we'd walk up and down that prom so many times a day!"
Since lockdowns have eased, the pair have been able to get about and see more of Ireland, Europe and get back home on a couple of occasions.
Back when we spoke with Porch, he already intimated that he wanted to stick around Connacht 'for hopefully a few more years'. The two-year contract extension was announced on Monday and it makes the international picture clearer. He is unlikely to throw on a green and gold jersey against but does harbour Test ambitions.
"All I'm focused on is playing well for Connacht," he says, "and if those [international] honours come, that's as big achievement. I see a bit of talk about Ireland and if that path comes along and I've been here long enough [five years to become Irish qualified] then we'll cross it then."
When Andy Friend returns to Australia, in the summer, Porch will be parted from the man who gave him the two biggest breaks of his rugby career. Now 28 and a bit wiser about the world, Porch understands the call of family and friends back home, as well as young grandchildren that Friend has only fleetingly seen.
In terms of his stand-out moments from his three and a half years in Connacht, Porch goes straight to Connacht beating all three Irish provinces away from home, in 2020/21. Personally, it has been 'enjoying my time here with my wife and getting over to see other parts of the world that we may never had got the chance to see'.
"It's been a hell of an experience," he says.
That experience is set to bring him all the way up to 2025 with Connacht and, if he keeps the boot down, Ireland.
WATCH THAT JOHN PORCH INTERVIEW (from 36:50) HERE:
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