Tuesday 22 May 2018

'I can't believe how well the switch has gone'

The Big Interview: Andrew Porter

Andrew Porter. Photo: Sportsfile
Andrew Porter. Photo: Sportsfile

Marcus Ó Buachalla

The first word that Leinster and Ireland prop Andrew Porter uses to describe his feelings ahead of tomorrow's Champions Cup final may not be the one that most would associate with the biggest game in the last six years for the club, but allowed to elaborate it all makes perfect sense.

"It's strange."

Andrew Porter. Photo: Sportsfile
Andrew Porter. Photo: Sportsfile

How so?

"A huge amount of work has gone into getting to this point. All part of a journey not only this season but last season as well and the team going so close in that semi-final away to Clermont and having to come back this season, go again, dig deep, dig even deeper and hope that it all comes together.

"There are never any guarantees either that what you put in will result in weeks like this, in finals. And now we are faced with a huge occasion, but a once-off game. And in many ways all that has gone before counts for very little because it's now about Bilbao and Racing 92. What went before won't count for much come kick off.

"It's a new team, we've no recent history with Racing, so it's a new challenge and we have to bring our very best game to beat this side.

Andrew Porter and Dan Leavy in the captain’s run at the Aviva Stadium ahead of the Champions Cup semi-final. Photo: Sportsfile
Andrew Porter and Dan Leavy in the captain’s run at the Aviva Stadium ahead of the Champions Cup semi-final. Photo: Sportsfile

"So yeah, there's a huge buzz and energy to the place this week but it's also strange but that's cup-final rugby too. It's all on the line."

The loss to Clermont in last season's semi-final seems like only yesterday in many ways but what a 12 months it's been for Porter.

This time last season he wasn't even on the tighthead side of the scrum, now he's a Grand Slam winner and facing into a Champions Cup final. He made his debut in September 2016 off the bench at loosehead against Benetton Rugby and a few months later he started with the number one jersey on his back against Zebre. Five games and a few chats with scrum coach John Fogarty later though, it changed and he came off the bench for 13 minutes in May 2017 against Ulster with the number 18 on his back.

"It's flown by all right and I can't believe how well it's gone. Literally 12 months ago last weekend I made my first senior appearance at tighthead.

Honest

"You have to take time to get to grips with it all and being honest I can't believe how well it's gone and what progress I've made but a lot of work has gone into that. I'm still learning all the time and I've had great help from Fogs and the other players. We're all in this together and I still feel I can get better, I want to get better."

Few of us get to experience the dark arts of the front-row but he has now tasted those arts on both sides. So if he could explain it to the layman, how difficult was the switch?

"It's like being right-handed and spending your whole life writing right-handed and then someone coming along to you and saying 'that's great, but can you write left-handed?'

"It's all weird. The feeling is weird, the sensation is weird and you are starting from scratch but again you have to want to get better and I wanted to get better and I had great people around me supporting me along the way."

So, by his own admission, he's no full-blown leftie just yet, but it's hard to argue with what he has achieved as a young man finding his way.

His 19 games in blue and five caps in green this season on the right-hand side of the scrum have given plenty of highlights and plenty for his Dad to be proud of.

"I try to get Dad out to as many games as possible and this weekend will be no different. I think he and a few mates will end up in Bilbao and will soak it all up.

"But it's only right. I owe so much to him and thinking of him and of home when I'm pulling on the Irish jersey or the Leinster jersey is a huge motivation for me and will be again on Saturday."

Dad Ernie was indeed a huge influence on a young Andrew Porter, introducing him to rugby at the tender age of five in Old Wesley and supporting the now 22-year-old through the ranks.

But one of the biggest tests now lies ahead of his young lad.

"Racing are there on merit. Any team is that reaches a final.

"What are the odds on away wins in the quarter-finals? One in four? Yet they went away to Clermont and won there and we know how difficult a task that is. They then looked so good against Munster in the semi, in particular that opening half.

"They've the best defence in France, the best defence in Europe and they're in the mix for the Top 14 again this season.

"They are hugely consistent and will want to go a step further than they did in 2016 against Saracens. We have to bring our absolute best to beat them."

It's also going to need all 23 players stepping up from the start and off the bench.

"If you look at this season, we've used 55 players in both the PRO14 and the Champions Cup and we've needed all those players. You need a squad. All of us driving each other to try to be better. Young lads driving older guys. Older guys kicking on to stay ahead of younger lads. But everyone striving to bring out the very best in each other of a Saturday and that's the same this week.

"We have to drive each other to make sure we deliver a performance on Saturday for us all to be proud of and for us to represent the whole of the 55 and the staff and the supporters, our families, everyone. There's a lot at stake."

Pressure

With so much on the line how will he cope with the pressure? As someone who started his first Six Nations game this season and who came off the bench in the cauldron that is Twickenham, he is building a memory bank of big games and big game prep but that doesn't stop the nerves.

"The day before I'm like a fella heading into his first ever game. I am a bundle of nerves and of energy. I can't sit still, can't do much, eating is not great. But it's a weird process because switch it to 24 hours later and I'm good to go.

"I'll sleep well, I'll eat well and the lead-in to the game is very calm."

Why the difference?

"I know what's expected. I know what I can do. I know what I'm there to do. I know I have my homework done and I know that I can help the team deliver a performance. That knowledge is reassuring and I then can't wait to get going."

Irish Independent

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