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England v Ireland: I didn't grasp significance of our Six Nations Grand Slam glory, says Court

 

By Jonathan Bradley

Ireland had waited 61 years, Tom Court had waited 29 minutes. The former Ulster prop had spent less than half an hour playing in the green jersey before claiming a Grand Slam back in 2009, that memorable day in Cardiff the occasion of just his second cap.

Of all the men who authored that piece of Irish rugby history, something Joe Schmidt's men can emulate with a win today against England in Twickenham, Court's story was arguably the most improbable.

When Ronan O'Gara, who knocked over the dramatic winning drop goal to seal the Slam, made his Ireland debut in 2000, Australian Court was still digesting not qualifying for the Sydney Olympics… as a shot putter.

It wasn't until 2004 that he fully turned his attention to rugby and two years later, thanks to a Limerick-born mother, began a career in Ireland that would ultimately encompass over 150 outings for Ulster and 32 for the national side.

While he went to a World Cup in 2011, played in a Heineken Cup final the next year and ended up being pulled from the beach to wear a Lions jersey in 2013, it was those first forays into Test rugby that saw him a part of one of Irish rugby's unforgettable occasions.

Stood in the aftermath, cracking a sadly forgotten joke to Prince William that had Brian O'Driscoll in stitches, he admits it was a strange experience given how long Ireland's captain, as well as the likes of Paul O'Connell and O'Gara, had chased that Holy Gail.

"It was all such a blur," recalls the Brisbane native, now back home after retiring at the end of last season and working as a performance consultant while looking to become qualified as a clinical psychologist.

"I was just getting a feel for the team environment and the extremes of international rugby. I think as I was so fresh and naive to rugby in general, my experience was probably very different from some of the seasoned veterans.

"After the whistle, even though I was ecstatic, I don't think I fully grasped the significance of the result. Some of those guys had waited a lifetime for that and many talented internationals will never experience that feeling."

It's a wave of emotion he dearly hopes the Ireland squad encounter this afternoon, saying he is looking forward to seeing his old team-mate Rory Best lift the trophy, but this is a fixture, and indeed a date, that conjures memories of a different extreme.

It was to become known as the 'St Patrick's Day Massacre' of 2012, when Ireland travelled to Twickenham on March 17 and saw their scrum annihilated in a 30-9 defeat.

Court, who began his Ulster career as a tighthead but switched to the loose thanks to the presence of BJ Botha and then John Afoa, was pressed into action on the foreign side of the scrum when Mike Ross departed injured. The front-row had been in a dire state before Court ever strode onto the pitch, but in the many dark days that followed it seemed like he and he alone had been left to carry the can.

"The issue I had was not that the scrum went badly for me, it was more that our first-choice front-row was getting pumped in the scrum and shipping penalties before I was even on the pitch," he muses.

"It's on YouTube and there for everyone to see. The whole team had not started well and it was already looking ominous. Whatever the injury, Rossy didn't feel he could go on.

"But England already had the ascendancy and replacing a seasoned specialist tighthead for a now loosehead who had played under 60 minutes at tighthead all season was unlikely to improve the scrum.

"But if you accept the responsibility of the jersey, you have to give it all you've got. I got offered to come off injured several times during the second half but I couldn't look myself in the mirror if I'd known I'd taken the cowardly option."

As a player, Court was always an interesting mix of candid and cerebral when dealing with media, openly talking about struggling with the mental stresses of life at the top in the sport, and he remains so when discussing why he believes it was he who bore the brunt of things. What quickly felt like a witch-hunt ultimately ended in online death threats.

"My rugby career and the quick turnaround from my first ever game to international level meant I was an outlier and not the norm," he says. "Irish rugby is a brand and to sell the brand best, they need inspirational Irish guys coming through the under-age, school and academy levels to show that other young Irish kids could do the same.

"I can't argue with that but I was not born and bred in Ireland even though I was eligible to play for Ireland from birth.

"The southern media have to play to their audience so I was a double whammy, an Australian Ulsterman playing for Ireland.

"I was an easy scapegoat and I'm sure there were a lot of guys playing for Ireland that day glad I was out there to take the heat.

"I didn't speak more than a few words for a week or two, got told I should retire, that I was the worst Ireland player ever, and there were a few death threats and a barrage of vile abuse thrown in too but that comes with the territory now I guess in the age of social media."

Court would play twice more for Ireland on the summer tour the next season, but never felt he showed his best in the side. It's a stark contrast to his standing in Ulster, where his adopted province are arguably still searching for his replacement four years after his departure.

"I had the genuine feeling through my international career that I was a stopgap and last resort until someone else born and bred Irish was available or even remotely in form," he says.

"I never felt confident or comfortable of my place and that was probably why I never felt I played as well as I could have.

"Saying that, Cian Healy and Jack McGrath are arguably two of the best looseheads in the world and some of the best Ireland have ever had so my days were numbered in any case.

"That period from the Grand Slam until the Lions was a wild ride and stressful for me and my family. I could never say it was really enjoyable due to the anxiety and pressure I felt.

"I loved playing rugby and will be forever grateful for all the opportunities I was afforded and loved every single minute but it was almost a relief when international rugby was over.

"The Lions experience would be the pinnacle of my career, one of the genuine surprises that you accept with gratitude and humility. But like playing for Ireland, that experience for me was tainted by the media and fans spinning it into some anecdote and reason to get aggrieved about a random guy on holidays that didn't deserve it.

"I always ask two questions. Would you say no if Warren Gatland asked you to play for the Lions? Who else should have got picked ahead of me? The response is always silence."

He should be used to it, his was a career of silencing critics.

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