Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 27 August 2014

My biggest call leaving Ulster Rugby: Tom Court

Impact: Ulster's Tom Court will be missed when he leaves for London Irish

With Tom Court on his way from Ravenhill to join London Irish next summer, Ulster now look like being minus two of their three first-choice front row forwards.

Former All Black John Afoa – a 2011 World Cup winner – almost certainly will be departing these shores, too, in order to be with his wife and their three young children who are back in New Zealand.

The departure of the two props will leave Rory Best (pictured with Afoa) the sole survivor of the current first-preference front three and Ulster, as a result, on the look-out for top quality replacements.

Court revealed that he has wrestled with the decision to leave the province for some time but could not turn down the opportunity of a new challenge at this stage of his career.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph at the launch of the new Ortus City Business Centre on Belfast's Castle Lane, he revealed: "It's the biggest decision of my career and I've had a few sleepless nights thinking about it.

"It's been a few months in the pipeline, and David Humphreys has been great the whole way through, but I think this is the best decision I could have made for both my career and, most importantly, my family."

Court, who got married and has had two children during his time in Belfast, spoke effusively about the city in which he has raised his young family. Now though, he feels the time is right to uproot to pastures new.

"My wife has always been very supportive of my career, but the kids are at an age where hopefully they are young enough that they will adjust fairly easily," said Court, who turned 33 last Wednesday.

"We've all loved our time in Ulster and obviously will be very sad and disappointed to leave the friends we've made here, but I'm sure we'll have a good time over there, too."

And while the surroundings at London Irish may be unfamiliar, there will be one instantly recognisable face at the Madejski Stadium with former Ulster fly half Ian Humphreys having made the same move to The Exiles back in 2012.

Court revealed that he had spoken to his one-time Ravenhill team-mate while considering the deal.

"I spoke to Ian about the move and his advice did certainly help. He's settled in very well and is enjoying his time over there. It seems to have given him a new lease of life," Court said.

The 6ft 3ins and 18st 5lbs loose-head has won 32 caps for Ireland and, while currently behind Leinster duo Cian Healy and Jack McGrath in the pecking order, he does not feel that plying his trade across the Irish Sea will damage his international chances.

"I've chatted with (Ireland coach) Joe Schmidt about it and he's very open-minded. If you're in form and he feels that you're the best player then you'll get picked.

"I'm still very motivated to play for Ireland," Court added.

Although Brisbane born and bred, Court is Irish-qualified through his grandfather who hailed from Limerick.

The fact that he was eligible for Ireland undoubtedly played a big part in his decision to accept Ulster's invitation to join them from Queensland Reds in the summer of 2006.

Almost at once Court's move paid off, for no sooner had he come to Belfast than he found himself included in the Ireland 'A' party for the Churchill Cup in the USA and Canada.

Although a latecomer to rugby – he only began playing while a student at the University of Queensland – the former shot-putter's ability to pack down on the loose or tight-head sides made him a particularly useful man in the days of only one replacement prop.

That versatility earned him an Irish debut against Italy in the 2009 Six Nations Championship campaign which ended with Declan Kidney's side completing the Grand Slam.

In 2011, Court was a member of Ireland's World Cup squad and his importance to Ulster was underlined that year, too, with his adopted province offering him a two-year contract extension.

At international level, however, he has never been held in quite the same regard as at Ulster, a fact underlined last season when, despite playing arguably the best rugby of his life, he was omitted from the squad for the ill-fated 2013 Six Nations campaign.

His exclusion appeared to be a hangover from St Patrick's Day 2012 when England trounced Ireland 30-9 at Twickenham. On what was a quite dreadful day, the visiting pack coughed up a penalty try, conceded six scrum-time penalties and lost three scrums against the head. It was an embarrassment for which, it seemed, sections of the Irish media – wrongly – held Court almost entirely responsible.

The Irish scrum was in big trouble well before the Ulster prop's introduction on the tight-head side as a 36th minute replacement for Mike Ross. It was an abject performance by the Irish team as a whole.

But despite being rejected by Ireland last season, Court had the last laugh when, whilst on holiday in Australia, he got a Lions call-up after England's Alex Corbisiero suffered a calf muscle injury in the first Test.

Thus it was that Court got a 35-minute run from the bench against Melbourne Rebels, enabling him to add Lion number 806 to his curriculum vitae.

And although omitted from new coach Schmidt's first Irish training camp in mid-September, outstanding displays for Ulster against Leicester Tigers and Montpellier in the first two rounds of the Heineken Cup saw Court reinstated as loose-head number three behind Leinster duo Healy and McGrath.

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