Court fired-up for starting role
Tom Court has taken the difficult route to his first start in the Six Nations, writes Brendan Fanning
'A powerfully built tighthead prop who continues to improve his game.' So opens the player profile on Tom Court on the IRFU website. Possibly it dates from the day he arrived in Ireland, when he didn't really know what he was, but it would remind you of one of those Wikipedia biogs that has been hijacked. Are they having a laugh?
Twickenham, St Patrick's Day, 2012: In the 36th minute of a game where Ireland are already struggling – they trailed 9-3 – tighthead Mike Ross goes off injured. On comes Tom Court. Over his previous six caps he has amassed the grand total of 41 minutes, a tedious cycle of getting his tracksuit off when the stewards are already in position, and fans are plotting their route to the exit.
The difference between a loosehead covering tighthead at Test level. and being an effective tighthead at Test level, can be the journey from north to south pole. On this day, Court is driven so far south he can feel the winds of Antarctica. On the field, and then on social media, he is slaughtered.
Carton House, November 6, 2012: It is the week of the South Africa game, the penultimate match in Ireland's battle to secure a place in the second tier of rugby nations. Declan Kidney calls Tom Court aside and tells him that he won't be needed that side of Christmas. The baton as back-up to Cian Healy has just passed to one of the freshest faces in Kidney's new crop, Dave Kilcoyne. Court is distraught. Having recovered from a broken thumb, and been part of an unbeaten combo in Ulster, he thought he was safe. Wrong.
Ravenhill, December 21, 2012: Leinster are in town to test the mettle of the unbeaten home team and Declan Kidney is there to observe. Court plays like a very angry man, and actually should have been carded for a stamp on Leo Cullen. Overall, however, he looks a different player and leaves a positive impression in Ulster's 14th win from 15 competitive games. If he thought it might count for something, his balloon bursts however when Kilcoyne is retained on the bench for the first two rounds of the Six Nations.
Carton House, February 18, 2013: Declan Kidney reads out the squad to play Scotland and, would you believe it, Court is back in the 23. Four years after making his debut against Italy, this afternoon will be his first starting role in the Six Nations. Kidney told him that he was the horse for this particular course, so it may not be the start of anything long-term. Still, when you've been turfed over the side and then get pulled back on board it's like a whole new voyage.
Curiously Tom Court wouldn't change a thing about the last six-and-a-half seasons since arriving from Queensland as an unknown. At the time we rang a good judge of horseflesh in Brisbane who described him as strong and athletic but a long way removed from top quality. Court had come late to the game in Australia, where he was a shot putter, and later still to Ireland who were desperate, and happy enough to work on him. It would be a project, at times painful. Yet he's well pleased with his lot.
"Yes, definitely. I wouldn't change a thing. Obviously flying straight in for the Churchill Cup, and then it was a tough two years where I was questioning whether it was actually going to work out or not and since then it's been a good run. It's just one of those things in professional sport I guess and, like I said, if you change anything in the past you wouldn't be where you are now. I mean I've had a better run than I would have ever dreamed of.
"The big thing for me was always getting that first cap, and then it was getting to 10 caps and things like that. You're always hungry and it's never enough and you're never content. That's why you see guys like Brian (O'Driscoll) and Ronan (O'Gara) who are 120 or however many caps and they're as hungry as ever.
"I guess the old cliché with the Joni Mitchell song – you don't know what you've got till it's gone – and I suppose (over) the last 12 months the big thing spurring me on is just getting in there, and to get back out there for Ireland."
There wouldn't be too many of Declan Kidney's new wave playing Joni Mitchell over in their heads. Probably not too many candidates for Salman Rushdie either, but when a colleague in Ulster encountered Court one Sunday morning en route for Dublin on a non-squad weekend, he discovered the prop was on his way to a reading by the novelist.
The thing you would have read often about Court in his early interviews was that he had a psychology degree, and didn't rely on rugby for things to fill his head. When you see him in civvies and specs you'd never figure him for a pro rugby player at all. Then, when he had to do a party piece on tour with Ireland a few summers ago, and he half read/half sang the lyrics to Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues – from his mobile phone – you wondered what we were dealing with. If he had been brewing up a storm on the field then all of this would have been a quirky aside; because he wasn't, he just looked like a fish out of water.
It's fair to say that Tom Court never developed much of a rapport with the Ireland supporters. Which might explain the grief that descended on him after Twickenham last March. He got no credit that day for not pulling rugby's equivalent of a sickie.
"There was chat a few times about it," he says. "I'm not sure whether it surely had to be something the coaches threw up and talked about, but like I said I wasn't going to give up, I wasn't going to take the easy route and throw the white flag up and say, 'Look this is too difficult, I don't want to be here'. It was just one of those things where I was going to give it 100 per cent and obviously it wasn't enough. Sometimes it's a tough life and you've got to learn and shoulder it and deal with it and sooner or later draw a line under it."
Was the vitriol related to the fact that he is an Aussie who qualified for Ireland through the granny rule?
"That's a difficult question. It depends. There are a lot of guys in the team that are born outside Ireland. There's a lot of guys who even grew up outside, even Declan Fitzpatrick, Mike McCarthy, those sort of guys grew up over in England. It's just one of those things where there is always going to be people out there who want to have something to be negative about, want to have something to be critical about.
"It came up again recently with Richardt (Strauss) coming in and then Michael (Bent) coming straight over and things like that. I guess it's tough trying to get a balance between making sure you have got the best possible team you can and winning games and sticking to the brand of Irish rugby where you really want primarily Irish born and bred guys, because that's what's going to get the kids and the grassroots wanting to get on board and get involved and keep the supporters on board.
"From a business point of view, it's very understandable and it's the way it should be but I'm almost into my seventh year in Ireland now. I've always been made very much a part of everything over here. There is obviously always going to be talk about your degree of Irishness and things like that but everyone has always been accommodating and welcoming. I mean even though after games like that there would be more people coming out of the woodwork, more critics and criticism and all sorts of stuff like that."
The irony in the Court story is that as soon as the IRB extended match-day squads to 23, in November, obviating props having to double job, Declan Kidney showed him the door. So as soon as it was safe to go back in the water, he was stranded on the beach.
"It's a lot smarter situation now and solves a lot of the unnecessary problems really," he says of the ruling, without any complaint about how it passed by his door.
Maybe this is because in the overall scheme of things he's had other things to worry about. His father-in-law passed away at the end of last year after a long battle with MS.
"It was a wind-down period and a fairly tough on everyone," he says. "After the rugby last year and just trying to get my head back in the right place and playing well, to be fair to my wife – she's been unbelievable. Without her I guess none of this (success) would have happened but it's just one of those things – I've been fairly lucky really, I've never had to go to a lot of funerals or dealt with family members passing away or anything so it just takes a while I guess to get over things."
This morning Tom Court will wake up looking forward to a new experience, one he should be well able to handle.
"You're always nervous – that combination of a bit of fear and nerves and excitement and exhilaration. I haven't had a lot of starts with Ireland – a lot of those caps have been off the bench, a few minutes here and there. I guess with the last 12 months and just the experience that's come (with it) I guess I'm a lot calmer and more settled than I would have been getting a start for Ireland. I don't feel like the pressure's as much as it has been. Maybe it's because of the way we've been playing up at Ulster but I just feel like I'm in a good place and I feel comfortable."
They should update his biog on the website. Loosehead prop who hung in long enough to make his first start in the Six Nations.