Sunday 18 February 2018

Court insists Twickenham collapse will not be his final Ireland cap

When Tom Court was asked by a well-known photographer to adopt a pose for the literary tribute to Ireland's 2009 Grand Slam, he turned his back on the request. Literally.

Unveiling a tattoo bearing the Latin quote above, Court stripped himself bare before the camera, but his medal remained prominently dangled around his neck, luminously complementing the dazzling inking upon his skin.

If it all seemed a little back to front, then perhaps this was befitting of the tale of an Australian-born, one-time Olympic shotputt triallist, who ended up winning a Grand Slam medal in another hemisphere.

He would subsequently represent Ireland at a World Cup – ironically featuring on its greatest day since that Grand Slam triumph in Wales, when he appeared as a substitute in the famous Auckland coup against Australia.

But less than six months on from that personal landmark, he would experience the nadir of his international career in a concertinaing front- row against England at Twickenham.

His greatest fear now is that that miserable March afternoon in south-west London will remain the closing memory of his 29-cap, three-year career in green.

"I don't want that to be my last Irish cap," he says. "I don't want that to be what people remember me by. That's the thing that still sticks in my mind.

"I've been playing for quite a while now with Ulster and there have been good times.

"But that's one of those moments that might be bigger – Twickenham, the scrum, me being at tighthead.

"That's driving me on. I still feel I have a lot to offer. I'll keep doing as much as I can to make sure that selection is as difficult as it can be for as long as possible."

His recent irrepressible form, culminating in a primal scream of almost violent declaration when competing against another naturalised front-row, Michael Bent, against Leinster last month, reflects that desire to remain in the forefront.

"Ha, ha," he chuckles when you reference his almost primal self-exhortations. "Yeah, definitely. It was really a kick in the guts over the November period not to be involved with Ireland. It took me a few weeks to come to terms with it.

"It was a jolt back to reality, knowing that if you want to stay involved, you need to be playing at the utmost of your ability. And even then you mightn't be involved.

"Obviously, the problem before was that I was playing tighthead for Ireland more than I ever did for Ulster. It was always going to be a sticky situation."

A sticky situation not necessarily all his own making. It was the Irish coaching staff, led by Declan Kidney, and the IRFU, who had failed to find a solution to the tighthead prop dilemma, an indispensable position for any international team with world-class pretensions.

When Court trotted onto the Twickenham turf last March to face a fired-up firing squad of bloodthirsty Englishmen, he may have been the wrong man in the wrong place.

But much of the blame for the farrago should be directed elsewhere.

The national response – particularly the indecently hasty promulgation of Michael Bent and accompanying embarrassing PR – has hardly engendered much faith.

Even though Court is now fully focused on loosehead duties, the enlargement of the international bench to 23 was still scant reason for the Irish coaching staff to so summarily discard him from their November plans, notwithstanding Dave Kilcoyne's rapid rise to prominence.

"Now it's a bit of a relief that I can just focus on loosehead," says Court, conscious to avoid displaying any public rancour.

"It's probably a galvanising feeling in some respects, knowing that it's all about what you can control and there's no point in worrying about anything else. I can only play as well as I can play and then it's up to them.

"Whatever other situations come up, whether it's different players or political things, it's out of my control ... "

While Bent became a panto villain in many people's eyes, Court is sympathetic to the Kiwi.

After all, it is players like Kilcoyne, Denis Buckley and Brett Wilkinson who are now his chief rivals, not Bent.

"That's the truth, that's spot on," he says. "Mike Ross, Bent and all of those have no relevance for me anymore, because I haven't played tighthead since the end of last season.

"I'm enjoying my sleep these days, so going back there probably wouldn't be my preference anyway!"

"Dave and Denis, they're all playing well. It's about me doing as well as I can. And then if they deem that I'm too old or not Irish enough, that's the way it is. Obviously, I'm available and I can only play as well as I can. The rest of it is just opinion."

Not Irish enough? There were a few who carped at his presence in '09, just as there are many who raise their nose in disgust at Bent's presence in Ireland squads.

"It shouldn't be an issue. To be honest, I can always understand why some part of the public might feel that way.

"Realistically, I've been eligible to play for Ireland since I was born. It's never been an issue with any of the coaches. Whether it's the case with the public is a different matter. I guess that's another story.

"Declan has always said that I'm very much involved in the scene. It's obviously then down to how they want to play and what players they want to use."

Court still wants to be one of those. His body and mind will never stop committing to that cause.

Irish Independent

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