'My Reds debut was special – but I'm hungry for more'
Late developer out to make up for lost time and stake claim for place in senior squad
It's been a long time coming, but when Alan Cotter ran on to the pitch at Thomond Park last December for his Munster senior debut at the age of 27, he'd achieved a life's dream.
Nine years after leaving St Munchin's, the Garryowen native got the call to come on in the closing stages against Connacht in the Pro12. All his family and friends were there to see his big day. But then it was over and the nervous expectation was replaced with a desire for more.
"My debut was a great experience for me, it was a massive privilege. My family were delighted too. All along it felt like it was so long in coming, but it was gone just like that. All I want to do is get back there as soon as possible.
"It was a surreal experience. The phone was hopping all week before the game. I've never been asked for more tickets in my life, it was just amazing.
"I was on the bench the week before against Scarlets, but I never got on, so I was delighted to make my debut in Thomond Park – to do it at home was special," said Cotter.
The former Richmond man can operate at both sides of the front- row, but it was his talents at tighthead that saw Munster pluck him from the All-Ireland League system, where he was impressing with Young Munster.
It's been a roundabout way into the Munster set-up, but he is delighted he punted on a pro-rugby career so long after leaving school and college.
"I was probably 23 by the time I got into the Munster set-up. After school finished I played with the Munster Schools team and it went fairly well for me. Then I had hoped to play for the Munster U-21s, but that was the year it changed to U-20s, so I was too old to play, so I missed out.
"It was back to the club route for me and I got a few starts, benched a few games for the first while. Young Munster had a good squad, so it was hard to break in, but eventually it started to go my way and I got the call to join up with the academy in the 2010-11 season.
"They were impressed with my AIL form, but they asked me if I'd be interested in joining up with the academy, despite being a couple of years older than the rest. I went in and gave it a go for two or three months and got an academy contract for myself.
"I was working away doing a job in a shop at the time, so I was delighted to get the chance. I had to take it, I knew I had to give it a shot. I kept up the job for a while, but it soon got a bit serious. I knew if I was to fully commit to trying to be a professional rugby player that I'd have to knock it on the head," said Cotter, who has been an ever-present starter in Munster's B&I Cup campaign this season.
But last year was key in Cotter's development. Traditionally props tend not to flourish until their late 20s, but a loan spell in the English Premiership with London Irish and Bath really gave him the belief he was good enough.
"Playing those games really made me think I was ready to play at this level. When I came back I really looked to drive on. I knew I was able to play at this standard, so why not give it a right lash.
"To get a run in the first team and to see how different clubs operate was huge for me.
"As it worked out, John Ryan went to London Irish for a month and then came back. The day he came back, I went over. I arrived on a Friday and actually made the bench the next day, coincidentally against Bath. I played that day against Paul James. We won that game, which was London Irish's first win of the season. The whole experience was a massive boost for me," he said.
The building blocks are slowly beginning to fall into place for Cotter. A good run of form with Young Munster in Division 1A has been backed up with plenty of Munster 'A' time and a taste of action with the senior team. He is keen to keep the pressure on those ahead of him though, whatever side of the scrum he appears on.
"I am preferably a tighthead, that's what Munster saw in me. But I can play both sides. I've been on the loose side of late, but I'd like to get back over there, especially with the new rules. But it's all about trying to impress for the rest of the season. Hopefully, the B&I Cup goes well for me and I manage to get one or two more Rabo games before the end of the season.
"I've started all the games this year in the B&I Cup at loose-head. We've done well in fairness, we've only lost one game to Plymouth away. It is mad to think we have Leinster again in the quarter-finals, but we really owe them one after the way they beat us in the semis last year.
"At Young Munster we have four clubs games left, so, hopefully, we'll win all of those. We have the B&I Leinster game in Donnybrook and, after this weekend, we have five Pro12 games left, with maybe, a semi-final and final. The plan is to push into the senior squad if at all possible," he said.