The growing pains of Harlequins star John Andress
John Andress shifts his huge frame slowly and awkwardly into a small chair in a Wimbledon coffee shop.
He is wrapped up against the November wind and apart from his distinctive Belfast accent he could be any other Londoner desperate for a cappuccino at the end of a hard day.
The London Harlequins tight head prop smiles when I ask why few people in Ireland have heard about him.
“Rugby is all about perceptions. If you get rated by coaches and the press from a young age, you’re set. I suppose never had that luxury,” he says.
Today, Andress is an articulate and thoughtful 26-year-old who is settled into domestic bliss in the capital with his fiancée Ruth. Yet, in his early 20s a promising rugby career with Ulster imploded before it had even got properly started.
“I was an angry young man with an inflated ego who thought that I could take anybody’s place I wanted.
“I messed about quite a bit, my lifestyle was all wrong.
“I was pumped up, but so immature looking back.”
After skipping one training session too many, the exit door beckoned at Ravenhill.
For the first time in his life Andress had a major crisis of confidence. Before his career ended at Ulster he had enjoyed proving the whole northern rugby fraternity wrong.
An unheralded and unpolished second row from Campbell College who didn’t even make his Junior Cup team, he had gained a reputation for playing with unrestrained aggression by his final year of school.
After being ignored by the Ulster and Ireland Schools’ selection panel he worked on a building site after his A Levels and transformed himself into an outstanding prop for Belfast Harlequins.
The Belfast club proved his saving grace after his professional career looked in tatters.
“I thought about packing it all in after Ulster ended, then (Alan) Solomons took over at Belfast Harlequins,” he recalls.
“I suppose I was pretty depressed at that time, nothing was going right.
“Then he helped me to realise my potential and really got me believing in myself as a prop.”
The South African coach helped Andress to utilise the aggressive nature of his game that hadn’t been fully cultivated at Ulster and he was soon approached by Exeter Chiefs in England’s National League One.
Connacht had expressed some interest, but Andress needed the clean slate that only a move across the Irish Sea could provide.
The beautiful surrounds of Devon provided the perfect antidote for then archetypal angry young man. He settled in very quickly and very easily.
“It was best decision I had ever made. I was made to feel wanted right from the beginning.
“It was a great place to learn with everyone there wanting you to do well, it’s a lovely part of the world and I was sad to leave,” he admitted.
Two idyllic seasons passed and Andress had established himself as one of the most talented players in National League One.
But new challenges beckoned. Dean Richards casually expressed an interest to his agent and before he knew it, the former hod carrier was packing down in the iconic quartered shirts of London Harlequins, only a few years after turning out for their less famous Belfast counterparts.
Andress’ timing could have been better. Harlequins were just emerging from the horror of the ‘bloodgate’ scandal.
The step up to the unforgiving and brutal scrums of the Premiership also provided a sterner test than he ever could have expected.
“I’ve always backed myself in any scrum situation, but to be honest, it took me at least five games to get into any sort of a groove.
At Exeter, I was a great bulldozer, just ploughing through people. I realised very quickly how technical it was in the Premiership and started listening to my coaches and improving,” he reveals.
The former schoolboy tearaway has never been one to back away from a confrontation on the pitch. Several red cards at Exeter for fighting confirmed a short fuse that opposition players delighted in lighting.
But since he has joined Harlequins he has not had a yellow card, never mind red.
And while he will never be considered a choirboy in the pack, he has made a conscious effort to be fiercely disciplined.
“At a young age, you’re always trying to prove yourself, I suppose you need to get it out of your system. I absolutely refuse to get intimidated, but I’m able to channel my aggression a lot better now,” he says.
Having represented Ireland ‘A’ while he was at Exeter, Andress is desperate to win his first full international cap.
He regularly outplays some of the world’s best props in the Premiership, yet still goes almost unnoticed in Dublin 4.
“I want to go to the World Cup in New Zealand, and I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t think about it.
“I know I’ve got to play regularly and well for Harlequins first of all,” Andress says.
“My goal has always been to play for Ireland and I will do anything to achieve that. Rugby is like life — you’ve always got to have that next target, so why can’t I have this one?”