Saturday 24 March 2018

No shifting promising prop after remarkable positional transition

Just one year after his tighthead debut, Andrew Porter is really catching the eye for Ireland

Andrew Porter Photo: Sportsfile
Andrew Porter Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

An anniversary rolls around today for Andrew Porter of which he is blissfully unaware. It was on March 4 last year, in Belfield, that he started his first AIL game at tighthead. Nine weeks later he was named in that position for Ireland's summer tour of US and Japan.

When in the 1980s Porter's old man Ernie was trundling down the middle of club rugby pitches - the decent thing would have been for him to play prop and not centre - the truism about front-row forwards was that they went nowhere fast. This covered both the speed they moved around the field with and the rate they grew into the job.

In a dangerous world where even light touch regulation would have seemed intrusive, experience and cunning were everything.

The exceptions to the rule were, well, as the word suggests. Dai Young, for example, was unique: he debuted at tighthead for Swansea as an 18-year-old in 1985, and for his country in the inaugural World Cup a year later. By 1989 he was the first choice tighthead on the Lions tour of Australia.

Andrew Porter (22) operates in a different world. One of the game's many changes means it's now feasible for unusually well-developed young players to break into the front row union without having paid much in the way of dues. What makes Porter special however is the way he has reinvented himself along the way.

Moving across the scrum from loose to tighthead is not just a change of position, it's a potentially career-limiting journey. You're being asked to shift in the first place because there is a long queue of looseheads in front of you. So if it doesn't work out that same queue will still be there.

Porter has gone from being an out-and-out loosehead on Ireland's under 20 World Cup final side in 2016 to starting tighthead for the senior side in the 2018 Six Nations Championship. From test case to Test player in the blink of an eye.

His dad brought him to Old Wesley mini rugby as a five-year-old. Most kids would wait until seven. Born big, he started working on it with missionary zeal as a young teen in St Andrew's.

"It was a very important time for me because I was going through a rough patch and yeah, I found it (gym work) therapeutic," he says. "It was good in a physical and mental kind of way; I could just let everything go and feel my own thoughts."

The rough patch was caused by the loss of his mother Wendy, who had been ever present when Andrew was playing rugby and hockey.

"Yeah, I'd say that was the main thing. I kind of found that helped a lot and my S&C coach in school, David Jones, was always there for me as well. So yeah, that was very good.

"She was great for supporting all my different sports, always there on the sideline cheering me on or cheering on my sisters. She was always a great driver for me, as well as my dad. Obviously it's a tough loss but I think it just makes us stronger further down the line."

His tattoos are a constant reminder of his mother's importance in his life, and his body shape is evidence of the work he has put in to get to this point. And it's not a single track programme for him. His stats since coming on for Tadhg Furlong against Italy comprise 22 carries and 13 tackles. He has carried more in less than two rounds than Mako Vunipola and Dan Cole combined over three.

"I think those days of just (being) a scrummaging tighthead are over. It's all about the full package now. That's what the coaches are all about with Ireland and with Leinster as well. The main thing is just knowing your role and then especially when you come off the bench it's about fitting in I think, and not trying to go off on your own and do anything outside the team system - just fit in first and everything else will fall into place after that really. A lot of the time when I come off the bench, or even if I'm starting, I just try to get on the ball as much as I can and get into the flow of the game a bit."

He managed it without missing a beat against Italy, and then stood up to the challenge of starting against Wales with a series of scrums where it was clear he wasn't contemplating reverse gear.

Front rowers at club level will tell you that the pressure and effort involved at the set-scrum can frequently be a Stars in their Eyes experience. You can imagine what it's like when ramped up to Test level. Having bypassed all the usual checkpoints on that route up the ladder, Porter is coping remarkable well.

As for that first game, a year ago, with a three on his back instead of a one, his opposite number, Munster's David Begley, remembers him well. "Yeah, you'd know he was starting out," Begley says, kindly, of Porter's transition across the front row. "I remember one scrum in particular, getting the better of him and getting a penalty out of it, but he's a big man. Hard to move. He's done well and fair play to him."

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