MELBOURNE, July 10 (Reuters) - Having thought time was up on a rugby career that yielded 27 tests and a World Cup final, Greg Holmes will have butterflies in his stomach again when he runs onto the pitch wearing a Western Force jersey on Saturday.
The 37-year-old prop has been named on the bench for the game against the New South Wales Waratahs at the Sydney Cricket Ground, as the Force return to the spotlight three years after being axed from Super Rugby.
Former Wallaby Holmes, who played 144 matches for the Queensland Reds before joining English club Exeter in 2016, has just about done it all in his 15 years in the game.
But the chance to help Force “surprise a few people” in the domestic Super Rugby AU competition has left Holmes buzzing.
“Although I’m probably the oldest guy in the competition, it’s almost like I’m the new kid on the block again,” Holmes told Reuters.
“That’ll be nice because I haven’t really had those nerves or excitement to be playing for quite a while.
“It’s all going to feel quite new to me again and I’m with a bunch of guys who I’ve only really met in the last two weeks. It’s good to have those butterflies in the tummy again.”
Only a few weeks ago, Holmes was wondering whether he had played his last professional match.
An Achilles injury limited his playing time with Exeter over the past year, meaning he failed to reach a threshold to extend his visa in Britain.
His hopes of playing out the season with Exeter plunged with the outbreak of COVID-19, which shut down the English Premiership in March.
A phone call from Force coach Tim Sampson last month was all it took to get Holmes on a plane to Australia, where he spent two weeks in quarantine before joining his new team mates.
Most props have spent years retired from the game by the age of 37 but Holmes is confident he still has the fitness, the strength and the scrummaging nous to do a job for the Force.
“It’s about hardening my body now, I haven’t packed a lot of full scrums for a while now and that’s why I’m still a bit sore,” he said.
“I’m getting used to the contact again. Hopefully it’s like riding a bike and I can just jump back on and deal with the soreness on Sunday after the game.”
Despite recruiting a slew of former Wallabies in recent weeks, Force have been written off as title contenders against Australia’s four Super Rugby sides.
Holmes said that would only spur on the Western Australians.
“The best thing I’ve seen here is the guys are not just in it to be competitive — they’re planning to win it. That’s the talk around the club,” said Holmes.
“You can tell by the pre-season we’ve done, they’re a well-prepped team. I think we’re going to be very competitive.”
Holmes and Force’s return to the spotlight might only last as long as the 12-week tournament, with neither the player nor the team able to look too far ahead due to the uncertainty over Super Rugby’s future amid COVID-19.
The end was “coming pretty soon” for his playing career, admitted Holmes.
“If I play this competition and my body’s absolutely horrible it’ll be the last one.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford