Ulster’s Tom Court returns to Twickenham for the first time tomorrow since his traumatic appearance against England last March — but Mike Ross believes the Ulster prop has already exorcised his St Patrick’s Day demons.
Court was pressed into service on the unfamiliar tighthead side of the scrum shortly before half-time in the Six Nations clash when a neck injury suffered in the first set-piece finally forced Ross from the field. The result was utter carnage.
By the time it was over, Ireland had been battered 30-9 and the scrum had conceded a penalty try, six penalties and lost three against the head. The post-mortem must have been almost as uncomfortable for Court.
Though he has always traded as a prop that could pack down on both sides, Court spent the vast majority of his career at loosehead. But, with tightheads a protected species in Ireland, he has long covered both sides on international duty.
Paddy’s Day in London was the day that sticky plaster was finally ripped from the gaping hole and Ross believes much of the criticism that flowed his replacement’s way in the aftermath was completely unjustified.
“In order to do well at tighthead you’ve got to spend a lot of time there and, to be fair to Tom, he hasn’t had that because [John] Afoa has been playing really well and Declan Fitzpatrick has stepped up to the mark,” said Ross.
“I find it tough going enough and I play there week in, week out. I felt sorry for him because it’s difficult to be playing loosehead for most of the season and then suddenly to be chucked in at tighthead, especially with the English scrum that we were facing that day.”
Court picked himself up in the best way possible by clocking in for an impressive hour against Benetton Treviso the following week when he wore the more familiar No 1 jersey. “He probably had some demons to exorcise and he’s done that,” said Ross.
And so to tomorrow. It isn’t all just about familiar faces, of course. Players from New Zealand and South Africa will bring some international flavour to what is otherwise an all-Irish occasion and Afoa will be of particular interest to Ross.
“Yeah he’s not your typical prop,” said the former Harlequins player with a chuckle. “That’s for sure. He’s a bit of a disgrace, really, to the front row with his outfield passes and tackles and carries. I don’t know what the hell he thinks he’s doing.”
For the most part, though, it will be a game played between men who have been — literally in the front row’s case — knocking heads for years now and, though that should minimise the usual volume of sledging, it will in no way lessen the ferocity.
Ross and Court room together most of the time when on Ireland duty. So do Stephen Ferris and Sean O’Brien, who have developed a strong friendship away from the paddocks. They face off for only the second time in their careers and it promises to be immense. The very mention of that back row battle draws another joke from Ross.
“Irresistible force meets immovable object, isn’t it? With those two, they’re roomies too. Every Irish camp they’ve been rooming together. I’d hate to think what goes on in there.
“But no, they’ll be wanting to put one over each other, to have bragging rights. It should be interesting to see what happens on Saturday and I’m sure they’ll be charging down each other’s channel.”
All in all, it will be a unique occasion for the teams as well as their supporters. Ross has heard about the rarified prices being charged for flights to London but, by and large, has kept the head down and let the fanfare and fuss wash over him. He seemed happier talking about his old mates at Harlequins, who will be playing their first Premiership final against a grizzled Leicester later this month, but wasn’t all that fond of the similarities with the Heineken Cup protagonists when that was suggested.
“I wouldn’t say so,” he said. “I don’t think Quins have ever won significant silverware besides the Amlin Challenge Cup. They haven’t won the league whereas Ulster have.
“They’ve a bit of big game experience and there’s a core of players with loads of experience like Johann Muller and Wannenburg. Then you’ve got the Irish players like Rory Best and Stevie Ferris...”
It may be civil but it will be war, nonetheless.
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