Friday 21 July 2017

The Big Interview: Porter walking in the footsteps of his heroes

Andrew Porter in training for Leinster Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Andrew Porter in training for Leinster Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Marcus Ó Buachalla

With the Guinness Autumn Series still in full swing and Joe Schmidt's Ireland seeking a third win in a row, Leinster will return to competitive action next week without a sizable Irish contingent. While opposition teams may target those games what is of little surprise given the competitive nature of the Leinster environment is that the players themselves will also be targeting those fixtures. Andrew Porter is one such player.

Only two caps into his Leinster career the 20-year-old loosehead prop knows that there are opportunities ahead to add to that tally with so many Ireland players away.

"There is a very healthy environment here in Leinster," he says. "Huge competition for all the places, be that in the front-row or wherever, but I suppose for us in the front-row we know that we are competing against Irish internationals across the three slots - Lions in some cases.

"So you have to bring your absolute best to work every day and you have to go about your business in the right way to show Leo and Fogs (John Fogarty) that you are ready if needed.

"So for next week, when we return to a full week of pre-match prep, we'll all go at it again and put our cases forward. Hopefully that will be enough to ensure a good team performance at the weekend away to Scarlets."

That healthy competition might explain his reluctance to deviate too far from his on-field duties during the time off last week.

"I stayed at home. I just saw it as an opportunity to catch up on things. I'm doing economics in UCD, and while it is great to be a part of the Ad Astra scholarship programme - there is great co-operation there and an understanding of the rugby scheduling - there are still points in the academic year when you fall behind.

"So on the week off it was good to catch up on some college work, but also some other elements that I wanted to look at in terms of my performance last day out."

That performance was his first start in senior Leinster colours - an away win against Zebre by 33-10 to leave Leinster on top of the Guinness Pro12 as they headed into the break.

Mammoth

It is easy to forget as you gaze upon his mammoth 120kg-plus frame that he is still so young and yet had gone toe to toe with Dario Chistolini, a 28-year-old Italian international prop who had played with Gloucester in the Premiership before his move back to Italy and to Zebre.

"I think what we all get - and by that I mean the younger props in the environment - is exposure to some of the best props in European, if not world rugby. Every day.

"I think that is what is so good about training here in Leinster. You are exposed to that level of competition, you are learning from lads who have seen and done it all. It also makes you want to work even harder.

"I think that puts myself, Oisín (Heffernan), Jeremy (Loughman) and Peter (Dooley) in a good place for when we are called upon. We are all mad keen to get to that level and to keep striving for that excellence. I hope that they benefit from us also trying to keep that pressure on them."

There has been a lot of talk about Porter's progress this season, but it is easy to forget that he really only appeared onto most people's radar at the recent 2016 U-20s World Cup when a superb campaign saw him named in the Team of the Tournament as Ireland reached a first ever final.

He looks back on the tournament with mixed emotions but huge pride, explaining: "Losing the final was disappointing. That disappointment stays with you, but looking back on it now you have to look at all we achieved.

"I think maybe we exceeded expectations but I believe that's a credit to us and the coaching team in that we were ready to step up. We built on our performances in the Six Nations and we upped our levels. Beating the All Blacks for the first time ever - those are moments and memories that will last a lifetime.

"I suppose it's easy to say now that I've moved on, and I have to a degree, but I have only moved on because of the things I learned over in Manchester. Scrummaging against different props and playing against different styles of play.

"Those days in the U-20s jersey helped prepare me for the games I am now playing at senior level."

Does anything prepare you for that tap on the shoulder from Leo?

"No! And to be fair I am still in shock as I didn't think that the chances would come this early in the season, but was delighted when I did get the call," he laughs.

"I've had the thrill of running on at the RDS and then a first start a few weekends ago, experiencing two winning changing rooms after a game. It's been very special."

It's been very special too for his family and close friends. Anyone that follows his exploits on Instagram will know that he has a loyal band of Porter followers.

"I rang my dad straight away after the chat with Leo for my first cap. He was delighted," he recalls.

"I was just so happy to do it for him - do it for my family, represent them.

"They sacrificed so much to get me to this point and even my sister Erica was over in Manchester for practically all of the U-20s World Cup. I think she's my number one fan. But they have bought into this as much as I have and their support means so much to me."

Appreciate

As he discusses his stand-out debut moments the word 'surreal' pops up a few times, and you can appreciate why. This team isn't just a jersey on his back.

"I was that kid in the stands looking at my heroes in the RDS," he says. "Players like Brian O'Driscoll and Shane Byrne, and now here you are taking the tracksuit off, ready to go on and represent Leinster.

"I was even a match-day mascot for a Leinster game in Donnybrook against Glasgow and ran out onto the pitch with Leo as captain - and there I am having a chat with him and he's telling me that I'll be in the match-day 23 or starting against Zebre or whatever.

"You talk about kids in the RDS - wanting to inspire them and show them that it's all there for them if they go about it the right way - and I'd like to think that a lot of us that go through the Academy into the senior team are proof of that."

The Leinster way. Andrew Porter's way.

Long may it continue.

Irish Independent

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