The Ireland prop breaks down moving from tighthead to loosehead prop with RW's Tom English
Andrew Porter on switching sides in the scrum
After he left the field in Ireland’s final Test of 2021, against Argentina at the Aviva, the television cameras lingered for a moment on Andrew Porter with his deadpan expression just about visible beneath that Desperate Dan beard.
Any number of things could have been going through his mind at that moment. A quiet reflection on how brilliantly he has bounced back from being invalided out of the Lions tour even before they set off for South Africa? A sense of pride at how well he’s transitioned from being Ireland’s second-choice tighthead to their first-choice loosehead? A feeling of exhilaration having just won his sixth Test in a row, one of the six being a spectacular victory against the All Blacks?
Or maybe something a little more mundane, like, ‘What will I feed Pablo when I get home?’ “Pablo’s my dog, an old English bulldog,” says Porter. “You know how they say that dogs and their owners begin to resemble each other after a while? I think that’s the case here. So I’m told anyway. I could have been thinking about anything, but Pablo was probably in there somewhere.”
In a rugby sense, 2021 was the most extraordinary year of his life, culminating with that victory over the All Blacks (his second over them in three attempts) and the part he played in it. A rookie loosehead at this level, he went hammer and tongs for 75 minutes, a rarity for a modern prop. He made eight tackles, carried ten times, jackaled his hairy head off its broad shoulders.
He embodied the ferocity of Ireland’s performance, a display that saw New Zealand making 235 tackles, the most they’ve ever had to make in a Test. For a guy who had only just returned to the No 1 jersey having made his reputation in the No 3, it was a monumental effort. The fact that nobody in Ireland was surprised was testament to his excellence. Porter is a ball-carrying, hard-tackling, skilful beast no matter what number he has on his back.
The move from tight to loose has not been without its challenges, he says, but he’s warming to it. “I was a loosehead a long time ago, in school and university, but the position has evolved a lot since then. My exposure at tighthead definitely helps me. It gives me an understanding of what a tighthead is trying to do to me.
“It’s the mental side of it that’s been the battle. Learning new things and dealing with not getting things right. People ask how the two positions differ. Well, it feels like I can breathe again now. I don’t feel like falling over exhausted after every scrum. There’s less pressure coming through you at loosehead.”
He goes into a technical explanation that confirms everything people say about him, that his gym work is otherworldly, that he’s practically on speaking terms with every piece of apparatus known to man. “The best way I can explain it is like this – hitting a scrum at tighthead is like your safety bar squat while at loosehead it’s more like a single-leg split squad or a Bulgarian split squad.”
Er, ok… “I’m still trying to figure out the best way to explain it,” he laughs. “It’s definitely less taxing on the body. I’d say if you were to measure it then at a scrum about 60% pressure is going through your tighthead and 40% through your loosehead.”
The idea to switch had been in the pipeline for a long time. Porter is way too good to be spending years as Tadhg Furlong’s understudy at tighthead for club and country, so the switch was inevitable.
“The coaches said, ‘Here’s the roadmap, are you up for this?’ I was. I’d won most of my caps as a sub for Tadhg but where I saw myself in the future, I wanted those extra minutes, so I ran towards the challenge and this is where I am, a loosehead.”
The end of 2021 could hardly have gone any better for the 25-year-old and there can’t have been a soul in Ireland who wasn’t thrilled for him in the way everything has worked out, especially since the dejection of missing the Lions tour. What might have happened in South Africa had he got the chance, instead of busting his foot playing for Leinster in a meaningless Rainbow Cup game.
“I was only talking about it the other day with my girlfriend, Elaine. The emotion of making it, then the even bigger emotion of losing it. I found it very difficult to pick myself up again. After wallowing for a while, the Leinster coaches gave me a goal of starting the season at loosehead and I switched my mind to that.
“It’s about dusting yourself down and coming out swinging. It’s hard to put into words the feelings but it has made me a stronger person and a better player, I know that. And it reminded me how many people are in my corner, which was a real plus.
“My girlfriend, my family, my friends, team-mates, coaches, supporters, all sorts of people. Phone calls and texts and WhatsApps – it all helped. The disappointment came in waves, but to have all those people rooting for me was a major thing for me. Hopefully there’s another opportunity to go on a Lions tour down the line.”
We can talk about his heartbreak of missing the trip to South Africa but these things are relative. Actual heartbreak was him losing his mum, Wendy, to cancer when he was just 12 years old. Proper pain was his struggle in trying to put his life back together in the wake of such a grievous tragedy.
He’s happy to talk about it. “I grew up with the mentality of not opening up to people and managing the burden all by myself, but there is only so much you can take. We’re all human. Talking about her helps. You can only bottle things up for so long until it suddenly hits you and you explode with emotion. I like talking about my mum.
“And if you open up to somebody it might help them open up to somebody else if they’re in the same position. It’s a real positive to be able to share these things. I learnt that along the way.”
His mum’s funeral took place a day before he started secondary school. Imagine how tough that must have been. “A lot of people in school didn’t know what I was going through and I developed an eating disorder. I’m sure it was linked to the loss of my mother. I was always the big kid when I was younger; I experienced some bullying and there was some deep-rooted stuff going on.
“It was all because I’d not wanted to talk about things, I wanted to deal with everything on my own and carry the burden by myself. I lost a lot of weight and sometime later I found pictures of myself and I tore them up because I didn’t recognise the person I was looking at. It was me but it didn’t look like me, it looked like somebody else.
“I’d gone from being one of the biggest lads to one of the skinniest. I found rugby training as an outlet. It was a great release. It was good for me physically and mentally. It was something else to focus on. Rugby was like therapy really. It was my way of expressing myself. That first year in school was the toughest but rugby was always there for me. My dad was always there. My sisters were always there.”
He’s got a tattoo dedicated to his mum. He sees it every day and so he feels her presence every day. In his quiet time now he likes to draw – or doodle, as he calls it. There’s a nice story about that. During lockdown he wondered if there was anything he could do for a charity close to his heart, the Irish Cancer Society. They asked if he was artistic. He said he was, to a point. He showed them the doodles. An idea of face masks came up.
“I helped them design the Irish Cancer Society face mask and it went well. They sold in lots of places around the world and raised some money. The drawings on the mask are mine. I remember being out with Elaine doing some Christmas shopping (2020) and I saw a few people with them on. People with my drawings on their face.
“It was weird but brilliant. It was an honour and a privilege to help raise some funds for them because cancer impacts on so many of us and the cancer societies do incredible work. I’m an ambassador for the Irish Cancer Society.”
Robbed of a Lions tour before bouncing back to beat the All Blacks in his new life as a loosehead, you wonder what further drama lies in wait this year.
The Six Nations is right in front of his face – and it’s exciting. He’s probably the man least likely to get carried away by Ireland’s excellent run in the autumn – victories with a style of play that’s not just attritional but wildly entertaining – but he can’t wait for the tournament to start all the same.
“The talent we have in this country is outstanding. We probably haven’t seen this depth in a lot of years. And there’s an opportunity for us now. It’s not just one position where we have depth, it’s all positions. We have lots of experience and we have lots of young guys pushing through.
“It’s not about learning anymore, it’s about winning. The other nations will all be saying the same thing. They’ll be feeling good about themselves. The competition is savage. It’s really exciting.”
Porter will be a key man for Ireland, a prop with strength, pace and a powerful back story. A really good guy and a rugby player with all the materials to achieve greatness in the years ahead.
This article originally appeared in Rugby World’s February 2022 edition.
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