Archer trains sights on return to Irish fold
Munster tighthead prop has had to bide his time and is reaping rewards of injury-free run of games
Come full-time at Thomond Park this evening, Stephen Archer will be one of only two players in Ireland to have featured in all 17 of their side's games this season.
Bonus point for those who know who the other player is. Clue: he is also a tighthead prop.
Billy Holland would also have been included in the conversation had he not failed his HIA against Ulster last weekend but, as it is, he misses his first game of the campaign.
It is a fair achievement for the likes of Holland and now Archer, who stands alone as the only man to have played in every Munster game this season - assuming he does indeed come off the bench against Connacht.
In his nine years with the club, Archer has racked up 150 appearances without ever really getting the recognition his commitment deserves. Holland has done something similar by lining out 176 times.
The two Munster stalwarts have won three Ireland caps between them but it is Archer who has his sights set on winning another this year.
Archer has soldiered through the years with Munster far away from the limelight. When he made his debut in Edinburgh back in 2009, the likes of Paul O'Connell, Ronan O'Gara, Donncha O'Callaghan, David Wallace and Denis Leamy were all playing that evening.
It's a mark of how far the Cork native has come and given that he only turns 30 later this month, Archer feels that his best years are still ahead of him.
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"I don't have much interest in social media and that kinda stuff," he tells the Irish Independent, with a nod to the days of yesteryear.
"I just prefer to keep my head down and work hard. That's always been my attitude.
Massive "I've been here since 2009. 10 years next year... that's a long time. I've seen a lot of changes.
"Coming to the one centre has been a massive help. It's only when you are training, you realise how impressive it was for the lads to win the Heineken Cup in 2006 and 2008.
"Looking back on it now, it almost looks like an amateur set-up.
"I still travel up and down (from Cork). There's about five of us; myself, Pete (O'Mahony), Zeebs, Duncan (Williams) and Billy (Holland).
"We carpool... well, myself and Pete travel together and Duncan and Billy. Zeebs kinda does his own thing. Loud music, I don't think he would be able to get someone to travel with him!"
It might, however, have worked out very differently had the neck injury Archer suffered against Glasgow in 2015 been more serious.
A prolapsed disc and trapped nerve, the worst was initially feared. In recent times, Felix Jones and Luke Fitzgerald both had their careers prematurely cut short by serious neck injuries.
Looking back on it now, Archer counts himself as one of the lucky ones.
"It was over two years ago now," he recalls.
"At the start of the season, I got surgery on my neck. I got back for the tail end of the year.
"Obviously after a neck injury, it takes time to get back up to speed fully. I was kinda thrown straight in there.
"I was out for about five months. It was a disc thing. It was a pretty simple operation. Lots of people had it before, so it wasn't career-threatening or anything like that. I never really thought about it like that.
"But it did give me a greater appreciation for rugby. You kinda think about things; 'Jesus, what happens if this is all over?'
"I have two young kids at home. You appreciate rugby when you are fit. You don't take it for granted and just make sure you enjoy it.
"Kids don't really care if you win or lose or if you're man of the match. They're just happy to go to the match.
"My kids, Alex and Casey, they're four and three so they're at a good age where they don't really know what's going on but they like the craic of going to the matches."
It has taken time to fully recover but this season has been pivotal for Archer. With John Ryan taking a firm grip of the number three jersey last year, Archer has had to bide his time.
With Ryan taking an extra few weeks off having been on the summer tour with Ireland, Archer saw his opportunity and grabbed it with both hands.
The 29-year-old has started 11 games this season, including all four Champions Cup clashes. He is named on the bench against Connacht this evening, presumably with a view to regaining his starting place for next week's crucial trip to Paris to take on Racing.
"It's been good," Archer says, of the 785 minutes he has played this season.
"I suppose I wasn't involved in any of the tours last year so I was in early for pre-season. I was riding through all of pre-season and started off with that Worcester (friendly) match.
"Obviously with the lads coming back from tour, John wasn't in until week two or three.
"I got in there and put in a few good performances early. Luckily, I've had no issues with injuries so I have been enjoying it.
"Definitely, the run of games has been a big help. Last season, I got in for a few matches at the end after John had played a lot during the year.
"It was good to get that boost of confidence towards the tail end of last season. For me, the more I play, the better I play. It's the same for most players really."
On form, there isn't a whole lot to separate Ryan and Archer but it is the latter prop who seemingly holds the slight advantage at the moment.
Tadhg Furlong remains the outstanding standard-setter for Irish tightheads and Archer knows that he has a lot of ground to make up in that regard.
"Myself and John would be similar enough," he maintains.
"I suppose we are the same shape - reasonably tall, reasonably round. Not overly tall or roundy round!
"We both take big pride in our scrummaging ability and work hard with Fla (Jerry Flannery). There is a big set-piece culture here at the club.
"That's the main thing for any tighthead playing here - just lock out the scrum.
"I think it (tighthead's role) probably is changing. You look at the way the game is going now, a tighthead has to be able to carry ball, pass, cause a bit of hassle at the breakdown.
"I think it has changed. Obviously the scrum is the bread and butter. Someone like Tadhg is excellent at carrying ball and he's a good scrummager as well.
"If you can do both, you're going to be sought after. It's a very important aspect."
The second of Archer's Ireland caps came against Australia in 2013.
A lot of water has crossed under the bridge since then but he remains optimistic that he can force his way back into Joe Schmidt's plans this year.
"I hope to play for Ireland again, it's one of my ambitions," Archer enthuses.
"It's the kinda thing where if you are playing week in, week out for Munster and playing well, that falls into place.
"You saw with John last year, he was the starting tighthead with Munster and going well and he got brought in and did very well.
"Rugby is a very team-oriented game though, you can't just be going out doing your own thing, trying to impress the national coaches.
"We had Andy (Farrell) down here. Joe and Greg Feek would be down maybe once a month. You chat to them then and they let you know where you stand.
"It would be great if I could get back into the set-up and rack up a few more caps.
"I chatted to Joe in November. He gave me a few things to work on and then Greg was down over Christmas. I chatted to him about a couple of small, technical things.
"Tadhg is flying at the moment. He's Ireland's top tighthead by a mile. But look, rugby is a fickle game. One injury and you could be straight in there.
"You look at someone like Mike Ross, he got capped when he was 30 and went on to win over 50 caps. So there is a big opportunity there. Tadhg is probably rare in that regard."
Archer knows that he will need a bit of luck to go his way if he is pull on the green jersey again and while he would love to do so, that is not his main priority for the rest of the season.
"If I could get into the Six Nations squad, that would be great," he adds.
"But winning a trophy with Munster is the main thing. Everyone here desperately wants to win silverware."