Late-blooming prop Courting Six Nations starting role against Italy
HE doesn't know yet, and certainly doesn't accept it as a given, but Tom Court is well set for a starting berth in Ireland's Six Nations opener against Italy on Saturday week.
Court has been one of the unheralded success stories of Declan Kidney's tenure as Ireland coach. When the Australian arrived over here five seasons ago, he was met with the customary cynicism that greets every southern hemisphere import looking to further their career in Ireland.
And, the initial signs were not overly encouraging. A shot-putter who took to the game late, it is fair to say that Court struggled in his early days here, with Dungannon and Pertemps Bees seeing more of him than Ulster during his bedding-in period (he made just three appearances for the province in his first season).
The prop had visible difficulties with the intricacies of the most technical position in rugby and the fact that he is now a viable option for Ireland in the No 1 or the No 3 jersey, is testament both to his application and determination, and to the commitment of Kidney and his forwards lieutenant Gert Smal.
When Kidney sits down to pick his team for Rome, he will assess the fact that the form loose-head and tight-heads available to him are the Leinster pair of Cian Healy and Mike Ross. John Hayes is unavailable to start a Six Nations for the first time since before the euro came in and Tony Buckley's inconsistency has outstripped his obvious talents and relegated him to the Wolfhounds squad.
Healy looks nailed down for the loose-head spot and Ross -- as the belated bandwagon has finally realised -- deserves to be on the far side. But Court, despite playing the majority of his rugby at loose-head for Ulster due to the presence of Springbok powerhouse BJ Botha, was picked ahead of Ross in the No 3 jersey against New Zealand in November and did well, which could influence Kidney's call.
However, the situation is further complicated by the fact that Court's versatility, and the bizarre international persistence with a solitary prop replacement, makes him the perfect bench option as cover for both positions and also by the fact that Buckley has a chance to stake his claim with a big performance for the Wolfhounds against Scotland on Friday. A bit of a riddle all round, then, so who does Court think is his biggest challenge for a starting slot, Healy, Ross or Buckley?
"When I work that out, I'll let you know," he replies. "Well, obviously, I would love to be in the squad for the five fixtures, and to get a starting berth in a couple of them would be fantastic. That would probably be a little bit ambitious, especially with the competition there is now."
Court is happy to be working with the senior squad in Limerick this week but is mindful of the audition opportunity presented to the Wolfhounds players on Friday night as the jostling for position begins in earnest ahead of next Tuesday's team announcement.
"Honestly, you'd prefer to be here," he stresses. " If you want to look at it like it's the old school system, it's probables versus possibles I guess. Some of the Wolfhounds guys, it's because they haven't got a lot of game time and with the squad depth it's hard. The only problem is I guess the Wolfhounds game gives these guys an opportunity to play and put their hand up. You really can't rule out any combinations.
"Realistically, you can't predict how it's going to go next week. I just need to get my head down and leave the rest to the guys in charge."
Court's case is undeniably aided by his role in a resurgent Ulster's march to the Heineken Cup quarter-finals for the first time in 12 years. He was in fine form for Brian McLaughlin's men over the last two weekends against Biarritz and Aironi but feels there is still much room for improvement.
"It (form) is probably a little bit off," concedes Court. "You want to be playing well enough that you are really confident going into next week. But I feel I've probably upped it a bit (recently) and the motivation has been a bit higher. I was a bit cooked for one or two of the Bath games. I am happy with how the last two fixtures have gone, but I am still a long way off where I want to be."
Where Court wants to be is one issue, where Kidney wants to use him is one of the most fascinating aspects to next week's selection for the game against the Italians.