4, 0, 0, 9, 10, 18 and 5 (thus far); that Jed Holloway has only reached double figures in annual Super Rugby appearances twice so far seems to run parallel to his status as a critical member of the NSW Waratahs squad.
There’s been a combination of injuries and a few years where he had to bide his time behind quality back rowers, but at 26 years of age the newly versatile forward is ready to play his 50th match (including non-Super Rugby) for the ‘Tahs this weekend against the Melbourne Rebels; ironically, returning from broken ribs.
“I got a taste of Super Rugby fairly early in 2012 after signing at the ‘Tahs, and then I basically didn’t play for three years,” Holloway tells RUPA.
“I was stuck behind Wallabies like Stephen Hoiles and Cliffy Palu, but they were two Number 8’s who I worshipped and genuinely really looked up to. Having the chance to learn from them was huge for me. Those guys taught me to stick it out and the fact that I am still here at the Waratahs today and still want to be a part of it is testament to them.”
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here; to tell the story of Jed Holloway, you need to go back to Under 10s footy for the Woonona Shamrocks, where Holloway first played the game before he and his family re-located North.
“Dad was coaching third grade at Woonona and I came through the Walla Rugby program and put on the Under 10s jersey a couple of times, and then we moved up to Yamba,” Holloway explains.
“When we got up there, we realised that there wasn’t a junior setup at the Yamba Buccaneers Rugby Club, so my old man, the McLennan family who’d migrated from Manly, and the (Wallaby Kane) Douglas family got together to start the junior side.
“I played every sport I could in Yamba. Rugby was Friday nights; Rugby League was Saturday, and then I played soccer on Sundays. My parents only let me do all three for one year, because you’re travelling a fair bit in country footy and they had their hands full with me as well as my sisters playing netball.
And then there was Nippers in the summer as well and if we weren’t playing sport we were running around fishing during the day, we were always busy and it was a great place to grow up.”
This isn’t the story of a young kid destined to play at a professional level. Jed didn’t make a representative side at all until he was seventeen and was selected to play for Far North Coast at the NSW Country Rugby championships. At that tournament, Jed earned selection for the NSW Country side, and was given the advice that if he wanted to play for his state and even country at Schoolboys level he would be best served moving to Sydney for the remainder of his schooling.
“I was keen to go, and Mum and Dad were keen to offload me too, so they booted me down to Waverley College and Owen Finegan’s parents (the late Pat, and Josie) took me in to their home. They had to kick my ass a couple of times because I was a grub, which I still am, but I was way worse back then!
“Pat and Josie were so great to me, and to Mum and Dad, and Owen was a big influence on my footy. Pat used to get out Owen’s Rugby World Cup medal and they’ve got a bit of grass from Twickenham which they showed off all the time, and that was a bit of motivation for me. I was selected for Australia A schoolboys and was an uncapped player on the Australian Schoolboys tour to Samoa and New Zealand, so I think the move down definitely paid for off my Rugby.
“When I finished school, I decided to play my Club Rugby for Southern Districts. My old man used to play for Port Hacking (who merged with St. George to become Southern Districts) and so did all of his mates, so it was a natural decision to follow in his footsteps. He tells me he was a pretty good Rugby player; all his mates tell me different, but I wanted to be like him.
“I still cop a bit of crap for it to this day, because most guys who come from Waverley go and play for Randwick, but I played one year of Colts with a little bit of Grade and then in my second year played exclusively in first grade and signed with the Waratahs, so I think it was a good choice.
“Cam Blades gave me my first opportunity in first grade at Souths, and he taught me how to take on professional habits. I still had a fair bit of growing to do when he first started working with me, but he gave me that first taste and pulled me up on my bad habits and what he thought we needed to work on. He was a big influence on my footy early on.
“Player wise, Kane Douglas was somebody I had grown up with in Yamba and he was there which really helped. John Ulugia was the Captain in 2012 when we made the Grand Final, and the three of us would carpool into the Waratahs to train together every day. Those two were iconic in my development and were patient with me – I know John wanted to whack me over the head a few times, but he dug deep and they’re good friends of mine to this day.
“Those three years at the Waratahs when I wasn’t getting selected were tough, because I really did want to play, but at the same time I look back now at what I learned from being Captain down at Souths and playing consistent finals footy at the time and it was really important for me.
"I was really loving just playing the game at the time because what I was learning at the ‘Tahs seemed to be really paying off and translating at Club level.”
Those years where Holloway wasn’t being selected included the 2014 Super Rugby title won by the Waratahs, and although he wasn’t in the 23 that night Jed looks back fondly on that year.
“That 2014 Super Rugby win was amazing. Cheik (then Waratahs Coach Michael Cheika) came in during 2013 and we went eight and eight, but you could see the quality of the squad he was moulding and the type of Rugby we wanted to play. We started 2014 off pretty slowly but then we gathered this momentum and there was just this feeling around the team that we felt a little unstoppable, and I’ve never felt that before or since.
“We just had this supreme confidence about us, from player 1 to player 35, and it was such a tight-knit group. Even though I was such a young guy I felt I could connect with the oldest guys in the team quite closely. Our Captain Dave Dennis went down with an ACL late in the year and Hoops seamlessly transitioned into that role - that squad took everything in our stride and nothing was going to stop us.”
Holloway freely admits he considered leaving NSW Rugby to get greater playing time elsewhere, but with the appointment of current Waratahs Coach Daryl Gibson came an opportunity to finally show his wares consistently.
“When we transitioned from Cheik to Daryl it was a contract year for me, and I was tossing up whether to stay or leave,” he says. “I wasn’t looking abroad but I looked interstate for a bit and naturally wanted more game time.
“I was close to going elsewhere but I sat down with Daryl for a coffee and he showed real belief in me, and I remember leaving that conversation feeling really confident and like I had someone in my corner who was going to back me up.
“In 2016, I was able to string nine straight games together before I did my shoulder, and I was lucky enough to have signed a new three-year deal just before I went down because I was playing some of the best footy I’ve ever played.”
Off contract at the end of this year, Jed feels like there is plenty of unfinished business at the Waratahs and in Australian Rugby, after touring with the Wallabies for the first time in 2018 but not breaking through for his first cap. The likelihood of that has improved following his transition into the second row at the Waratahs, with his ability to play three positions (Lock, Blindside Flanker and Number Eight) setting him apart from many of the other challengers.
“When we won in 2014 I didn’t get to have an influence on the field, so winning a championship is definitely something I want to achieve as part of my legacy, and to bring to New South Wales Rugby,” he said.
“The reality is that I haven’t technically won anything. I wasn’t in that Super Rugby final, I have been to a couple of Shute Shield Grand Finals but haven’t won one, even when I was younger, I lost Grand Finals.
“I want it so badly for the ‘Tahs at the moment and I truly do believe that the squad we have this year is a phenomenal one which we can do some special things with, and every chance we get to show that in the blue jersey is something you don’t take lightly as a player and is something I really respect.
“This is the first pre-season where I turned up and realised, I’m one of the old guys now! I have never been a really outspoken guy, and I try and lead more by my actions, so I don’t consider myself one of the first picked or anything like that. I just want to keep on pushing within Australian Rugby, and that Wallaby carrot is still forever present in my mind.
“Going on that Wallabies tour was a great opportunity as long as I can put my hand up for selection, I will. I took that tour as a massive learning experience and it really showed me that the step up to that next level is one which I am capable of. To be around that squad and know that it is not out of reach for my playing ability is something that gave me a huge amount of confidence. To go on that tour and learn from all of those guys and those coaches was something I am really grateful for.”
So how did he end up playing lock?
“We played in Japan during the June break last year, and I had been mainly coming off the bench in the back row in Super Rugby, but a lock went down early and I had to push into the second row.
“After the game, Fitzy (Damien Fitzpatrick) said to me after that game that I needed to be careful, I was pushing too hard for a back rower in the second row, and I might end up there. Funnily enough, then Cronny (Assistant Coach Simon Cron) and I had a conversation and I said I wanted more game time and would be up for playing lock if the team needed me to.
“From there, he integrated me into the position, and I feel I had a couple of good performances, so we just kept on going. It took a few games to get used to it; popping your head out of a scrum you’re seeing stars for a few seconds and you lose a bit of dynamism! I like that in our system the locks still get their hands on the ball plenty of times and it has worked out quite well.”
Holloway won the Community Service Award at last year’s RUPA Awards Lunch, the most significant recognition for charitable work in Australian professional Rugby, and takes a lot of pride and enjoyment out of his work as an ambassador for the Starlight Foundation.
“As soon as I started at the ‘Tahs, (former RUPA and Waratahs Player Development Manager) Lachie McBain was into me to try and do something away from Rugby, and I wasn’t really interested in study.
“Once he got to know me a bit better, he found out that I had sadly lost my cousin to leukaemia when I was younger and that the Starlight Foundation had a pretty big influence on our family and his hospital journey. He organised for me to go down to meet the team down there at Randwick, and I kept on going back with a couple of guys to visit the Starlight room and for the Christmas visits. Lachie told them about my personal connection to Starlight and they were really keen to get me on as an ambassador about four years ago now, and I’ve done it ever since.
“It basically involves just being available for them, and most importantly the kids. They have an online chat room called Live Wire for the kids in the hospital where we can have a conversation about anything and I do that once a month, and then at the end of last year we did the Christmas visit with the whole squad and we sung “This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman. The kids and Starlight people really loved that as well. The boys at the ‘Tahs have been awesome with it, they put their hands up to stay as long as needed, to buy presents, to visit more wards; it’s certainly not just me and I couldn’t do it if my teammates weren’t so willing to participate as well.”
When Holloway spoke at the 2018 RUPA Awards Lunch, he stated his belief that there were a lot of players who would have been just as worthy winners.
“I think most Rugby players in Australia realise that we’re in a position to either change something or to make a difference and go about it in the right way. Locky McCaffrey at the Brumbies does amazing work, Nick Palmer who was with us last year; he was constantly putting his hand up to do stuff. The humble way players go about their actions, and there’s no bullshit about it. There’s not a lot of egos in Australian Rugby and it’s a great thing.”
Away from footy, Jed has found himself a unique Rugby housemate and a couple of new hobbies.
“I love my spear fishing but coming back from broken ribs lately I haven’t been able to get out and do that. Instead, I’ve been varnishing all of our furniture outside and spending a lot of time on the lawn and setting up the garden. Nick Phipps and I have a bit of a lawn competition going at the moment and I’m sucking a fair bit of knowledge out of him. I just mowed mine today and I’m fairly happy with it.
“My missus Cayley has moved over here from America with me and we’re in a share house with (Australian Women’s Rugby Sevens star, and Gold Medallist) Emma Tonegato and her boyfriend Jamie.
“Jamie and I played Rugby together at Southern Districts, and my missus and I were living in this big house and keen to cheapen up the rent a little bit, so it just sort of fell into place. It’s good that we’re similar athletes and our diets need to be pretty strict, even though she runs a fair bit more than me, so it’s salads only in our house!”
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