“THE big goal for me is playing for Poland, and when pre-season comes around at Stirling, I’m going to hit it running.” Those were the words of Polish-Scot Dan Tomanek back in May, and if it wasn’t for Covid-19 that goal would have been achieved on the 10th October against Ukraine.
Tomanek had managed to overcome some traumatic personal experiences which he shared with us as part of Mental Health Awareness Week, but having coming to the attention of his father’s homeland, the former Stirling County man now finds himself playing professionally in Poland’s Ekstraliga, and pushing for the national team’s No10 jersey – but, unfortunately, he is now going to have to wait a bit longer.
“We all got Covid tests on the Wednesday [on the week of the match], and it had been a very good camp leading up that,” explains Tomanek, who is currently back in Scotland during Polish rugby’s mid-season break. “I was on a high, training was going well, then I came down to dinner – I was one of the last ones to come down – and the team manager was in there saying: ‘Right, I think the game’s going to be cancelled boys, because there’s quite a few of you have tested positive for Covid’.
“He didn’t release names, and I went back up to my room, then I got the message saying I’d tested positive.”
The call-up to the Poland squad had come off the back of a remarkable half-season for Edach Budowlani Lublin where Dan had excelled at stand-off: top points-scorer in the league, named in ‘Team Of The Year’, and statistically declared the best back in the league before it’s mid-season break.
“Before I went I was keeping track of the league and after my first involvement with the national team I always wondered if going over there to play would be a good idea,” he says. “Lublin have been sort of middle-table or just below (since gaining promotion in 2016) but they’re a growing club. When the contract was presented to me they spoke about where they want to go, their vision, and how they really want to push on and finish in the top three.
“On an average week for me, we’d train pretty much every day. Monday and Wednesday, recovery and gymming. Monday we’d go get ice-baths, the whole shebang, and both days gym sessions.
Tuesday, Thursday and Friday would be field sessions; Tuesday and Thursday we do skills and contact, Friday would be the captain’s run if we were playing on Saturday. In Scotland I had been training twice a week with County and then my own stuff in between.”
Adding to the change of schedule and scenery for Tomanek, a change of regular position. Most frequently deployed at full-back in the past, he was offered the chance to take the playmaker role.
“I’ve played 10 before, but I hated it when I was here. It reminds me of the bad times I was going through and I wasn’t playing good rugby,” he reflects. “But I just went over there with the mindset of ‘nobody knows who I am, nobody knows what game I like to play, so let’s try a few things’.”
“When I arrived I got given a playbook about an inch thick, and it was all in Polish. I was Google translating it, and listening to it to try and learn it. I spent the first week before bed just studying this book, going over it, and over it, and over it, thinking: ‘Oh God, I really hope I’m up to this’.”
To begin with, things weren’t quite paying off. Due to travel restrictions, Dan and a handful of international players Budlowani had signed were only able to join up with the squad one week before a pre-season friendly against league rivals Pogon Siedlce, which they lost. They then played the same opponents on the opening day of the league season and lost again, this time narrowly. Two more defeats followed, albeit with bonus points picked up – one for being within seven points and one for tries in an 80-point match against Warsaw.
“I did feel a little bit of pressure,” Tomanek recalls. “The media side of Polish rugby is actually pretty big, and the club announced me and the other boys who had arrived on their website, so I think they expected us to win straight away, but we’d come in one week before pre-season and we’d not been able to train because of Covid.”
The turning point came on match-day four against Gdansk, and it was Tomanek who sealed the points with a last-gasp penalty.
“They’re usually in the top-four, but we just dominated them everywhere. We just clicked. They were probably the most physical team I’ve ever played against in my entire life, but after Warsaw we had a week’s break, so we just spent that whole two weeks working on defence and battering each other in training.
“I don’t think they were expecting us, and thought they would just maul us over. It was 18-17 to them and we got given a penalty wide left. I pulled it just left and then the ref said there was only two-minutes to go. We ran back the drop-out and we got a penalty, then it was pressure, pressure, pressure and we got another couple of penalties.
“They’re really fond of a tap-and-go, and our captain Piotr – he’s a big guy – and I could see he was going to do it again, so I was screaming at him because it was right in front of the posts and it would win us the game.”
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And win the game it did. The match had been broadcast nationally and commentators had called it one of the best games that Poland had ever seen. It also happened to have been attended by Poland head coach Duaine Lindsay, who called Tomanek and two team-mates into the president’s lounge to announce their call-up into his 26-man squad. Tellingly, Tomanek was one of only two stand-offs selected.
A poor performance in the next match saw Lublin defeated, but the following two performances brought high-scoring wins with Tomanek at the heart of them.
“My confidence right now is sky high,” he smiles. “I love playing at 10, I love the responsibility and hearing all this stuff, like ‘you’re the best 10 in Poland for ten years’. I’m not trying to sound big-headed, but I offer something a bit different, and now I fully believe in my own abililty.
“I’m scheduled to go back mid-February with the restart hopefully in March. For the moment, my contract is until the end of the season and it’ll be up to them if they want to keep me, but I’ll just have to see what happens.
“I’ll get a bit of a rest now I’m back, but I’ll train constantly in the gym and if I can at County, then go back in good shape for the next part of the season for Lublin and Poland.
“The standard in Poland’s good. With more time and better coaching throughout the league, we will catch-up. I reckon we could be the next Georgia.”