Court: I was thrown in at the deep end against England
Tom Court may be a big strong guy — 6ft 3ins and 19st 2lbs — but he doesn’t mind admitting that the criticism he took in the wake of Ireland’s humiliating defeat by England at Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day got to him.
So he was more than happy to return to the Ulster fold when the 2012 RBS 6 Nations Championship ended.
That’s hardly surprising; here he is the undisputed number one number one.
With Ireland, however, he plays second fiddle to loose-head Cian Healy — and also has to cover Mike Ross on the tight-head side of the front row. One replacement prop at international level when there are two in the PRO12? Ridiculous.
Two weeks ago the wheels came off the bright green cart. Even before Ross retired injured in the 35th minute the Irish scrum had been in serious trouble. When he exited, the already-crumbling structure was ground into figurative dust.
Wholly unfairly, Court seemed to take the blame for what happened, for which reason he was delighted to return to a camp where he is held in such high regard.
“Being back in with the Ulster boys was like a big cosy blanket,” he admits.
“Look, it’s fantastic being in with the Irish set-up; they’re all very supportive, the coaches are great and really encouraging and all the players get on brilliantly.
“But the way it all ended was really disappointing. Even though Ireland finished third in the overall standings, we know, the coaches know and the public knows that the team and the players we have should be doing much better than that. I think that’s the main disappointment.
“We need to be a lot more consistent because I don’t think anyone doubts that the current Irish team definitely have big performances in them.
“The World Cup showed that and the game away to France was a close one that could have gone either way. So it’s just a matter of trying to work out ways of not only keeping the big performances there but solidifying and consolidating in the other games so that we’re winning the tight ones and putting in better performances.”
Having returned to Ulster, he was keen to get back on the metaphoric bike by playing last weekend against Treviso.
“My wish all along was to get back in with Ulster as early as possible,” he revealed. “I was lucky that Brian (McLaughlin) was thinking the same and quite obliging in getting me straight back in.
“It was quite obvious through the Six Nations that I needed to play. I hadn’t played much, obviously,” he points out.
Revealing that February and March has not been a great morale-boosting period, the addition of five further Irish caps nothwithstanding, he says: “It has happened the last few years where you go into the Six Nations feeling confident, lots of games, playing well and then you come out the other end with your confidence fairly low, not much game time and your fitness fairly poor.
“That’s just a consequence of being there and playing the bench a lot.
“The best way to get back into it is just to play as much as you can.
“Last week was a good opportunity; I had a few days into between after we’d finished against England, so straight on the bus with the boys and down to Treviso.”
Explaining the problems he personally encountered against Alex Corbisiero, Dylan Hartley and Dan Cole at Twickenham he continues: “Tight-head is a specialist position and it’s one of those things where you’ve got to be playing there regularly.
“You can train and practice on a scrum machine as much as you like but if you’re not playing there regularly in matches, getting your body used to the position and getting used to the tricks of the trade – the dark arts or whatever clichés you like to use – you’re going to find it hard.
“I guess, worst case scenario, is what happened a couple of weeks ago.
“There were probably a number of factors but I think, primarily for me, it comes down to the fact that you’ve got to be playing there regularly if you’re going to get thrown in there at the deep end.”
Court is a highly intelligent man and he can see why, post-Twickenham, there has been such an outcry about the paucity of tight-head props in Ireland.
“That’s why the IRFU committee have come up with this foreign player policy. I’m sure the tight-head situation is one of the main reasons behind them coming up with things like that,” he reasons.
The provinces’ employment of top-class foreign tight-heads, the fact that some of the indigenous or Irish-qualified number threes aren’t quite up to the standard needed and the deployment of someone like himself on that side of the scrum only very occasionally are factors which have added to the problem.
“If you haven’t got players playing there regularly then they’re not going to be up to standard.
“So obviously there needs to be some sort of system or methodology put in place to try and remedy that,” he stresses, endorsing the IRFU’s attempt to sort things out once and for all.