Ireland's Andrew Porter in full flight. Dan Sheridan/INPHO
heavy metal

'If he gets under you, good night and good luck... He's immensely strong'

Andrew Porter is setting a new standard in athleticism and work rate at prop for Ireland.

IT HAS INCREASINGLY become the norm for Andrew Porter to go nearly the full distance with Ireland and Leinster. That doesn’t make it any less remarkable. Props don’t generally do what Porter can do.

His 74-minute shift against South Africa two weekends ago was just the latest in a string of tireless efforts Porter has put in for his country.

When Porter was eventually called ashore in Paris, he looked like he’d have been happy to play on. Indeed, he has gone the full 80 for Ireland three times, including their most recent game against Scotland when injuries struck during the Six Nations clash in March.

Among the messages Porter saw on his phone after the win over the Boks was one from David Jones, PE teacher and head of strength and conditioning at St Andrew’s College, Dublin, where Porter came through secondary school.

“It’s a new standard he’s almost setting for props,” says Jones ahead of Porter’s next outing for Ireland against Scotland in Paris tonight.

“75 minutes at that intensity, I thought, was incredible. He’s blazing a trail for front row conditioning.”

Leinster scrum coach Robin McBryde, who works closely with Porter in his province, was similarly impressed with the loosehead prop’s latest demonstration of his blend of strength, fitness, and accurate technical skill.

“Especially when you consider the amount of work he gets through away from the set-piece as well, on both sides of the ball,” says McBryde.

“His carries, his involvements around the contact area where he’s making a nuisance of himself on opposition ball, he’s really taking a full part in the game. He’s always active and engaged in all facets.

“It’s very rare that you feel you have to take him off because he’s blowing. I don’t think that’s ever the case, actually.”

And former Ireland tighthead prop Mike Ross, who retired in 2017 just as Porter was beginning to take off with Leinster, points out that 27-year-old has worked hard to get himself into this condition.

Ross has seen Porter become leaner over the years, losing some of the “puppy fat” he carried when starring for the Ireland U20s in 2015 and 2016.

“There’s not a pick on him at the moment,” says Ross. “Himself and Cian Healy are disgracing props everywhere with their body composition!

andrew-porter Porter in the gym with Ireland. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“He’s still quite young, so he doesn’t have 10 or 15 years of wear and tear catching up with him. The work he has put in, he’s reaping the rewards of it now.”

Jones knows well just how hard Porter has pushed himself. He remembers Porter starting in St Andrew’s College at the age of 12 and having just suffered the devastating loss of his mother, Wendy, who passed away after a battle with breast cancer.

St Andrew’s provide pastoral care and counselling for students, while Porter threw himself into rugby in the aftermath of Wendy’s death. Jones recalls him attending a rugby camp in St Andrew’s the day of her funeral. 

As Porter himself has recounted, the years that followed were full of distress and anguish. He developed an eating disorder at one stage and went from being one of the biggest in his year to being very skinny.

“No kid should have to go through what he went through,” says Jones.

But Porter came to love working out as he discovered a grá for the gym that’s still as strong as ever today. He’d work out by himself at his local Ben Dunne gym and then do another session at school the same day.

“I think it was probably a bit of headspace place and I’ve always said that to kids,” says Jones. “It’s a very rewarding environment and he embraced that.”

Porter was part of a good crop of players in St Andrew’s, which wasn’t renowned as a big rugby school. He played with Ireland international Jordan Larmour, Ulster back row Greg Jones, and the talented Jonny Guy. All of them ended up on the same Ireland U18s side that reached a European final in 2014.

By the time Porter was playing for the senior team in St Andrew’s, he had earned a reputation as a remarkably strong youngster.

“He was always a bit of a gym rat,” says Jones. “He always had the potential to be really strong. Obviously, there’s genetics there but it’s just consistency and that’s what it takes – show up, lift, and recover.

“A lot was made of him squatting 230kg for eight reps there recently, but he’s been repping north of 180kg, up to 200kg since he was at school.

“He’s a strong boy and always has been, but he’s also very mobile, flexible, able to get into and out of positions that are required in the game. He has maintained that and now he’s got the next-level conditioning.”

tim-mays-and-andrew-porter-at-the-final-whistle Porter in St Andrew's colours in 2014. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Porter was a star for the Ireland U20s at loosehead prop, helping them to a World Cup final in 2016, and then the decision was made to switch him across to the tighthead side of the scrum as he broke into senior professional rugby.

It’s an extremely difficult thing to do even if there are some similarities, but Porter became good enough at tighthead to be picked for the 2021 Lions tour, only to be ruled out of the trip to South Africa with a toe injury. It was a tough blow.

While Porter was excelling at tighthead, Ireland and Leinster felt that they would be better served by having him switch back to loosehead the following season.

It made sense for Tadhg Furlong and Porter to be in the same starting team as often as possible given how good they both are. Despite another new challenge, Porter was soon establishing himself was one of the best looseheads in the game.

“It’s a reflection of his character,” says McBryde. “He doesn’t tend to overthink things, he just gets on with it.

“It was one thing to agree to move across but to do it with passion and an intent to take a couple of lessons because it’s not always going to be a smooth ride.

“I remember having the conversation with him initially and he took it all really positively. He could see the reasons for it. It didn’t make a lot of sense for someone of his ability to be on the bench for the amount of minutes he was.”

McBryde points out that Porter has been in the perfect place to learn his trade, whether it was working with Furlong at tighthead or with Cian Healy when switching back to loosehead, not to mention the other props in Leinster and with the Ireland squad, where John Fogarty is the scrum coach.

Ross is a scrum nerd of the highest order and he has enjoyed watching Porter at loosehead, which is a different scrummaging proposition to tighthead.

“Where he could come into difficulty is when a prop doesn’t take him on directly,” explains Ross of the challenges.

“We’ve all seen the videos of him squatting small cars in the gym so he’s immensely strong, but if you can’t deploy that strength, if someone is wily enough, it can make it difficult. Where he has struggled is if someone gets inside him.

“On the flip side of that, if he gets under you, good night and good luck. Against South Africa, there were a couple of times where Frans Malherbe [the tighthead] was pancaked flat-out on the ground. He didn’t probably get the reward he wanted. Ports is immensely strong.”

As Ross underlines, it’s all well and good for a prop to be making big carries, winning turnovers, and throwing slick passes but if they’re giving up scrum penalties, they won’t be picked. 

andrew-porter Porter has continued to impress at the World Cup. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

And he outlines just how tough it can be to scrummage and then deliver instant effort around the pitch.

“You come out of the scrum and your legs are burning. You have to dig deep and sprint to get into the defensive line or kick chase. A lot of backs don’t appreciate that.

“You’re battling two tonnes of pressure or whatever and then you’re up and out.

“I can remember times in my career where I was coming out of scrums seeing stars, trying to get the legs moving to get into position. Someone’s shouting at you to get around the corner and you’re thinking, ‘F**k you! Why don’t you go in the scrum.’”

Porter usually comes out of scrums to deliver huge work rate, while his athleticism around the pitch is always eye-catching.

“He’s a very smart rugby player,” says Ross, “he’s not stupid by any means. He’s not just a dumb ape throwing weights around. You can see his rugby intelligence shining through in a lot of the things he does – the poaches he gets, the tackles he makes, the carries he does.”

When opposition teams make breaks or pass wide in a bid to score, Porter is often the Irish player tracking back or corner-flagging, showing great pace to cover the ground.

“Obviously it’s athleticism but it’s down to a mindset – ‘I’m going to be there,’” says Jones, who saw that trait in Porter from early on.

Porter is now one of the leading stars for Ireland and he’s a well-known name across the rugby world, but he seems to be unchanged by the limelight. 

Jones explains that Porter has always had huge support from his father, Ernie, and his sisters, Erica and Leigh.

“If you’re ever shaking hands with Ernie Porter, it’s like shaking hands with Andrew,” says Jones. “They’ve got meat hooks for hands! Ernie played centre for Wesley.

“Strong grip, strong family. They’re good people who keep things well grounded. Andrew is just down to earth.”

Porter got married to his partner, Elaine, during the summer and they have a bulldog named Pablo.

The Ireland prop is big into his heavy metal music. Metallica are a favourite, while he’s also into bands like Slipknot and Slayer.

“He’s definitely got a different taste in music!” says McBryde with a laugh. “Yeah… I forget the name of the band but the one song he shared with everybody, it was… obviously, he’s into the heavy metal type scene.

andrew-porter-with-his-wife-elaine-after-the-game Porter with his wife, Elaine. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“It’s great to have those individuals, it’s something that should be encouraged. We’re all different characters, so be comfortable in your own skin and just be yourself. Andrew is definitely one of those people who is a bit different.

“He doesn’t say a great deal, he tends to just get on with things. But there’s a lot more inside him than people might give him credit for. He’s a very intelligent player, he thinks deeply about things.”

Jones, Ross, and McBryde are all in agreement that there’s plenty more to come from Porter.

He’s still only 27, which is young for an international prop.

“There’s still further growth in him and that’s the most exciting thing,” says McBryde. “I don’t think he’s reached his potential as yet.

“You wouldn’t say he’s even in his prime yet. He’s not far away but he’s getting better and better. It’s exciting how much growth is left with a little more experience.”

Ross says Porter is one of the most crucial players in Ireland’s World Cup hopes, given that there’s a gap between him and the other options at loosehead.

“He’s very important. We don’t produce too many players like him,” says Ross. “Ports would be one of the lads I’d least like to lose, to be honest.”

Back at St Andrew’s College, the kids are buzzing that a former pupil of the school has such a key role in Ireland’s World Cup campaign.

A picture of Porter is among those of former pupils that Jones has hung in the gym to inspire the next generation.

“Andrew’s hopefully got a long career still ahead of him,” says Jones. “When you think about what he’s already achieved, it has been a phenomenal path. It couldn’t happen to a nicer fella.”

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