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John Andress: Ulster weren't big into guys going out so the writing was on the wall for me

The former 'wild child' on why he needed to get away from province and his rollercoaster journey in game

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Life's journey: John Andress

Life's journey: John Andress

Starting out with Ulster in 2006

Starting out with Ulster in 2006

�INPHO/Ulster Rugby/John Dickso

Training with Munster

Training with Munster

�INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Full charge: John Andress on the attack for Edinburgh in the 2015 European Challenge Cup semifinal against the Dragons

Full charge: John Andress on the attack for Edinburgh in the 2015 European Challenge Cup semifinal against the Dragons

�INPHO/Cathal Noonan

A' team: Andress on Ireland 'A' duty

A' team: Andress on Ireland 'A' duty

�INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Life's journey: John Andress

So, where best to start for John Andress when sifting through this Ulsterman's lengthy and pretty decent playing career?

 

It's a tricky one as the former prop's journey reads more like a route map as, over the course of more than a decade, he was at three Irish provinces, the same number of Premiership clubs in England and even had a bit of Scotland, thanks to some time at Edinburgh, thrown in as well.

Could he be Ulster's most travelled player in the pro era? Not many spring to mind who can challenge his journeying nor indeed the demand that was shown for the tight-head prop's services which saw him play over 200 times in the professional game.

In that time he has played with and against some of rugby's leading lights, not been far off becoming a full international, and rubbed shoulders with an eye-catching who's who of the game's coaches.

Not bad for a largely forgotten player in his home province who left here with his career stalled and an off-field reputation for not exactly model behaviour.

Though by no means a highlight, his encounter with then Munster coach Rassie Erasmus - just over three years prior to the South African going on to mastermind his home nation's recent World Cup victory - seems to jump out.

As such, we begin virtually at the end of Andress' career.

He had been signed from Edinburgh by then head coach Anthony Foley and joined the squad in the summer of 2016 as a 32-year-old dodgy-kneed prop, though with knowledge aplenty about getting the job done.

Foley reckoned that Andress could add value. Erasmus, who came in as director of rugby for the start of the new season, thought otherwise.

They sat down that pre-season and the South African told Andress straight out.

"You know, I'd thought I'd give it one last go," Andress recalls of agreeing to join Munster.

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Training with Munster

Training with Munster

�INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Training with Munster

 

"But Rassie was very honest with me and told me I wasn't going to be in his plans and that my knee just wasn't up to it.

"He was going to play younger guys and that was that. It was gutting but you just had to live with the reality of it and, you know, that's the nature of professional sport."

There was no sense of bitterness, no explosion of anger, just respect that his coach had been straight and told him what he probably already knew anyway.

"Rassie was sound and thoughtful too and he'd ask you if you needed help with this and that. I respect him for what he did as he could have just lied as many coaches I'd known before had done," he says.

He saw out his time with Shannon in the AIL and was gone before Christmas from a Munster squad still rocked by Foley's sudden death.

Though that wasn't quite the end of it as Pat Lam and Connacht came calling just as Andress was laying the groundwork to bring wife Ruth and his young family back home to Belfast.

"They'd had a few injuries and said I'd be looked after and I thought, 'Well, yeah'," he says.

"Actually, Connacht also wanted me when I signed for Munster and, looking back, I should have gone to them I suppose.

"But, look, it's like placing a bet," he says of mulling over moving clubs and, really, he should know.

He played five games for the westerners which was five more than he got at Munster - he also never turned out for Ulster's senior side at the start of his journey - and had the personal satisfaction of playing against Erasmus' side on New Year's Eve when he emerged from the bench.

"I won a few scrum penalties and that was like nearly proving a point to myself," he adds of what was a narrow defeat for Connacht.

He finished up in late January 2017, coming off the bench for a six-minute cameo at Toulouse in the final round of Champions Cup pool matches.

"It was a nice way to end it all," the now 36-year-old states of bringing the curtain down on his well-travelled playing career which, naturally, had its fair share of injury issues.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Andress has found himself drawn towards coaching.

Though a late convert, he reckoned he could give something back from all the differing nuances and techniques which he had absorbed with most, though by no means all, of it being positive.

After two years at junior side Instonians he has now taken up a role at AIL club Belfast Harlequins, where his adult career pretty much started, as assistant to Neil Doak while he has also been running player agency Edge Rugby Management along with cousin and former Ulster player Roger Wilson, who now lives in Texas.

Andress' journey to this point is quite the story, how he transformed himself from supposed 'wild child' with an off-field reputation into a quality professional who was in demand for his strength and durability.

Along the way he also became an avid student of scrummaging, majoring on the subject in the brutally harsh and unforgiving world of the English Premiership.

He was a player many clubs sought to employ and wherever he went, Andress, mostly, added value.

The former Campbell College pupil also notched up a few notable personal achievements too having played for Ireland 'A' - injury, however, forced him out of the successful Churchill Cup campaign of 2009 - and also pocketed a European Challenge Cup-winning medal from his time at Harlequins.

"I look back on my career with very fond memories and I've forgotten now about a lot of the bad stuff," he says with a knowing laugh.

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A' team: Andress on Ireland 'A' duty

A' team: Andress on Ireland 'A' duty

�INPHO/Dan Sheridan

A' team: Andress on Ireland 'A' duty

 

"I was lucky to get the run I did. You sometimes think, 'What if this had happened and what if that hadn't happened?'

"But, look, I had mates who didn't make it or went on further than me and then got bad injuries and had to retire."

And yet it wasn't always thus. After his first taste of the game playing mini-rugby at the former North of Ireland club, he came through the Ulster Academy and featured for Ireland at under-age level where he shone along with Gareth Steenson, a player who also found success away from his home province.

With an Ulster contract bagged, it seemed only a matter of time before his breakthrough. But it didn't come.

Instead, he was playing club rugby for Belfast Harlequins and also building a less than glowing reputation off the paddock.

"If I could go back then with the mindset I have now it would be different but I was always dedicated to my rugby," he recalls.

"Ulster would have had a mentality at the time that wasn't big into guys going out and things like that, and I suppose that counted against me.

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Starting out with Ulster in 2006

Starting out with Ulster in 2006

�INPHO/Ulster Rugby/John Dickso

Starting out with Ulster in 2006

 

"As such, I knew the writing was on the wall.

"Myself and (second row) Lewis Stevenson basically wanted to get away.

"We wanted to play rugby somewhere and we knew that we couldn't get ahead of the guys in front of us at Ulster."

An opportunity at Exeter beckoned in 2007 and the pair went for it.

"The set-up and the coaches were good so we signed and, for me, it was a decision I never regretted."

At that point Exeter were in the English Championship but making moves on breaking through into the big time. For Andress, a frustrated player now wanting to make his mark, the ambition of Exeter seemed the perfect fit.

"I would have been starting all the games and I was selected in the Championship Dream Team two years in a row so I was playing a lot of rugby and getting exposure," he says.

Ulster, not for the first time, showed an interest in bringing their prodigal son home while Munster also had a nibble. However, Andress was most impressed by then Harlequins coach Dean Richards and chose London and life at the cutting edge of the Premiership.

Through no fault of his own, the timing could hardly have been worse.

As he explains: "I arrived right after 'Bloodgate' and 'Deano' was gone with Conor O'Shea brought in to steady the ship."

It was a tough time but he stayed for two years, played a lot and learned even more. Ulster then came in again only for the deal to fall through somewhat late in the day.

After that, Connacht and French club Agen's interest was turned down for a move back to Exeter who were by now holding their own in the Premiership with Rob Baxter at the helm.

A year later, with the Chiefs wanting him to stay and Andress enjoying working with Baxter, the now 28-year-old went for a tempting offer at fellow Premiership side Worcester.

"You think, 'This could all end at any time so I'm going to take the money here'," he says.

"From a purely rugby perspective it wasn't a good decision."

Worcester were relegated in his second season and after a combination of injury and new coach Dean Ryan clearly taking against him, it all looked to be going bad before former Ulster coach Alan Solomons, who had worked with and greatly helped Andress at Belfast Harlequins, offered him a way out at Edinburgh.

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Full charge: John Andress on the attack for Edinburgh in the 2015 European Challenge Cup semifinal against the Dragons

Full charge: John Andress on the attack for Edinburgh in the 2015 European Challenge Cup semifinal against the Dragons

�INPHO/Cathal Noonan

Full charge: John Andress on the attack for Edinburgh in the 2015 European Challenge Cup semifinal against the Dragons

 

He took the offer, was a mainstay in the match day 23 for his two years in the Scottish capital and made a European Challenge Cup final in 2015 only to be on the losing side to David Humphreys' Gloucester.

An elder statesman now, he did a job for Solomons at an improving Edinburgh but then along came Munster and this time he went, though he knew his wanderings were virtually over.

There are few regrets. He knew he needed to leave Ulster to discover how good a player he could become.

"The best thing that ever happened to me was getting away and experiencing different environments and seeing another side of life," he says.

"I absolutely loved the Premiership.

"I loved it in terms of its brutal physicality, the competitive fixtures and crowds. And, you know, I probably grew up as well."

He showed those who doubted him and, more importantly, proved to himself that it all could be done. It's been some journey.

Belfast Telegraph