ACT Brumbies hooker Billy Pollard has returned from his short stint with French giants La Rochelle with his eyes wide open and eager to showcase his development.
The 21-year-old joined the defending European champions on a 'joker' deal, filling in for French hooker Pierre Bourgarit, one of 11 players picked for September's World Cup.
Even with close to a dozen players overseas, the squad was stacked with international talent that included English winger Jack Nowell, former All Black Tawera Kerr-Barlow and South Africa star Dillyn Leyds
“It was pretty amazing,” Pollard said to Rugby.com.au. “You always hear about stuff like that and think you might get the opportunity but you never think it’ll even happen.
“My manager just said they were looking for someone during the World Cup period and I was over the moon but I still didn’t think it was ever going to eventuate.
“The whole time I was there was really surreal just seeing what it’s like over there and the crowds and atmosphere. Everything’s fairly different to what you get at Super level so I got a good test of it and I loved it.”
La Rochelle is a town that lives and breathes Rugby.
To give an idea of the level of support, it's estimated their celebrations after their 2022 European Rugby Champions Cup win attracted close to 35,000 people. The town only holds 75,000.
After they claimed back-to-back titles in May, around 2,000 were there at the airport at 3:45 am with flares and drums to celebrate their triumphs.
Pollard got the full experience in his first game at the club.
He started on debut in a 35-14 win over Lyon alongside fellow Australian and good mate Archer Holz, crashing over the line to the delight of the packed Stade Marcel-Deflandre.
“We pulled up to the stadium and they had yellow flares, thousands of people and they were signing as loud as they could,” he recalled.
“It was amazing. It was like nothing I’ve experienced before.”
At 21 years old, Pollard has already had a taste of Test Rugby, rushed into the Wallabies squad against Argentina in 2022 after a string of concussions left Dave Rennie out of options.
Having missed the start of 2023 with a hand injury, the Brumbies hooker was eager to reclaim his spot for the long term.
“I think Wallabies is the aspiration for everyone growing up playing Rugby in Australia and still something that everyone in Australia wants to do. I think for me though it’s more about nailing what I can at Super Rugby,” he believes.
“As much as I’d love to get to that next level (again), I need to stick with the basics first and try and be more consistent at Super Rugby and then hopefully I can get the opportunity and make the most of it.
“I think I need to be more consistent around my set-piece. That’s the number one role as a hooker and going to France taught me how much set-piece can affect the momentum of a game.
“I’ll work on that with ‘Con’ and ‘Noss’ (fellow Brumbies hookers Connal McInerney and Lachlan Lonergan) so all three of us can see big improvements, I probably have a bit more to work on than them, and hopefully more game time comes from that.”