Holmes embracing Australian return with Force

Super Rugby - AU
by Christy Doran

Not for the first time, Greg Holmes has popped his head up to surprise a few.

No, not because he’s buckled at the scrum, an area of the game he’s mastered over the best part of two decades playing at the top.

But because the 37-year-old is back in Australian rugby after a four-year hiatus in the south-west of England.

“I didn’t think I would be playing rugby in Australia again,” Holmes tells RUGBY.com.au.

“It’s a good little surprise, a welcomed surprise too.”

It wasn’t that long ago he similarly reminded people of his staying ability.

It was five years ago, in 2015, that he played his first Test for the Wallabies in almost eight years as then national coach Michael Cheika picked him on the bench to face the Springboks. A few short months later, he was on the plane to England and helped see the Wallabies to the brink of World Cup glory as they fell just short in the final against the All Blacks.

Greg Holmes plays for Australia A in 2005. Photo: Getty ImagesA year later – after more than decade being the axis behind the Queensland Reds’ scrum and another 13 caps under Cheika to go to his 14 served under Eddie Jones and John Connolly – he waved goodbye to Australian rugby and joined England powerhouse Exeter under Rob Baxter.

Holmes played key roles in each of his three seasons at Exeter, helping them to three consecutive finals and coming off the bench in their 2018 loss to Saracens in the final.

But an Achilles injury delayed the start of his fourth season at the Chiefs and with Coronavirus forcing the postponement of the 2019-20 season to August, it meant Holmes didn’t qualify to renew his visa.

Forced to reassess his options, Holmes was preparing to slide off into the sunset and bow out of rugby with no fanfare nor send-off.

That was until Western Force coach Tim Sampson, an old mate from Brisbane who played a handful of matches for the Reds, picked up the phone and rang Holmes.

“Initially I planned on doing another season there, but with my visa I couldn’t renew it and you have to play a certain percentage of games to renew your visa and I hadn’t hit that mark, so I was a bit stuck with options,” Holmes explains.

“I was hoping to extend it to finish out the season but because it had been postponed with COVID, and the visa place had closed down, that wasn’t an option either.

“So I didn’t really have anything to do but come home and just by chance Tim Sampson rung me and asked me what I was doing and I said ‘I was coming back to Australia, I haven’t really got many options at the minute’.

“He just said, ‘do you want to come through Perth and play with us for a few months’ and I said ‘I’d love to’.

“It gives me a chance to run around in Oz again.”

Holmes’ Wallabies day might be done.

The most he can say about those chances are, “I think they’d look at how old I am and that’s about the only time they’ll look at me.”

But for Holmes, priorities have changed and the ability to wrestle the younger generation and teach a few of the current Wallabies a thing or two when he thought his days were done is what keeps this old dog barking.

“The main thing is I still think I’m capable of it and whilst I’m capable of it I thought, when the opportunity came up, I thought why not,” he said.

“I’ve put in a lot of hard work and time to get myself back fit to finish the season out in England and because of COVID I wasn’t going to get a chance to play there again.

“I was a bit bitter about that, not bitter, but it was a bit of a downer that I had done all this work to get my Achilles back to a condition to play and then it was looking like it would be the end.”

Some things have changed.

Greg Holmes plays for the Queensland Reds. Photo: Getty ImagesNo longer is he wearing the Reds jersey he pulled on for more than a decade, but with Queensland coaches Samspon and Van Humpries also at the Force, his arrival at the club hasn’t been quite as foreign as it once might have.

“No, definitely not, and that was a decision that I was toying with when I went overseas,” Holmes said, in response did he ever think he would play for another Australian franchise.

“I had a couple of options in Australia but I couldn’t bring myself to play for another team in Australia, but a lot of time has gone by now.

“All the teams have changed dramatically and knowing Tim and Van Humpries really well, it made the decision to come here a lot easier.”

Holmes has been back in Australia for less than a month and two of those weeks were spent in lockdown at the Westin in Perth with his wife.

So whether or not he lines up against the Waratahs at the SCG on Saturday evening remains to be seen.

But you can bet one thing, the Wallabies stalwart isn’t coming back just to play.

He wants to win and he wants to teach his former teammates James Slipper, Scott Sio and Taniela Tupou a thing or two.

“That’s 100 per cent the plan to come back and show a few people up,” he said.

“If I don’t, I’m probably not doing my job properly.”