Tuesday 31 January 2023 Dublin: 7°C
©INPHO/Presseye/Matt Mackey Court is an intelligent and engaging character off the field.
# Late Starter
'If you read the game wrong, you’re going to look like a goose'
Ulster prop Tom Court explains how ‘game awareness’ was the hardest skill to learn when he took up rugby at a late age.

UNSUNG HEROES ARE littered across the rugby world; the guys who do their jobs without ever becoming stars.

Then there are the anti-sung heroes, the players who are met with criticism no matter how good their performances are on the pitch. Perceptions are a hard thing to shift and for Ulster prop Tom Court, being involved in the Twickenham Debacle™ in 2012 has left a lasting impression on many supporters.

There is no need to revisit that game, but it is worth pointing out that in his natural position at loose-head prop, the Brisbane native has been part of a powerful Ulster scrum over the last three seasons. Court’s contributions this season alone have seen him better Dan Cole and Maximiliano Bustos.

Having only taken up the game of rugby in 2004 at the age of 24, learning to scrummage was one of the more testing tasks. While the former Olympic triallist shot putter had high levels of strength, the technical prowess required in the set-piece had to be learned.

When this season brought about changes to the scrum directives, Court had to learn all over again.

“It probably took me a little bit longer than a few of the guys. If you look at some of the other guys, like Cian Healy, he’s built perfectly for the new laws and has been terrorizing tight heads all over the place. He’s in quite a natural position, whereas I’m quite bit taller.

I had to try and tweak a few things and work with it to try and get the best way not to get caught out, but also the best way to get your power through. Put me in a gym and there wouldn’t be any problem, you’d be matching up with anyone.

“When you get bent and buckled over and put in all sorts of positions, it’s hard to get your power through and get your legs and glutes stuck into it. So it’s just been a bit of a learning curve. It’s always different week to week, depending on how big the gap is, where the opposition like to bind.”

Now 33 and having signed a three-year deal with Premiership side London Irish starting from next season, the 6ft 3ins prop claims that he is still working on all aspects of his game. The scrum is what he will be judged on generally, but that doesn’t stop Court from focusing on other areas too.

“I say I’m always trying to improve. Obviously, I’m not 24 anymore. I’m not going to be able to sprint around like all the young guys and do some of the crazy things they’re doing. For me, the learning curve still keeps going in terms of awareness in the game.

imageCourt jogs onto the Ravenhill turf for training. ©INPHO/Presseye/Darren Kidd.

“I think that was the biggest thing for me starting late; game awareness and knowing where you should be and where you have to be, trying to read the game so that you can project what’s going to happen so you can be in the right place at the right time.”

It’s an interesting skill, and probably one that many professionals take for granted having played the sport from very young ages. We praise the likes of Dan Carter and Brian O’Driscoll for so often being in the right place at the right time, but is that a natural gift or something that had been nurtured?

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For Court, improvement in game awareness comes with simply being on the pitch and attempting to process the information available to him.

“Playing games and trying to read the game. [It helps] knowing the players in your team well, but it’s just one of those things that you pick up over years of playing. You can be the fastest and the strongest and have the best reaction speed in the world, but if you read the game wrong, you just end up in the wrong place and you’re going to look like a goose.

I think for a lot of props, especially in defence, it’s about trying to get in the right place so they don’t get exposed too much. I’m always trying to improve, I’m always working on things. It would be nice to be more of a ball carrier, it would be nice to be able to come flying in and take people’s head off all the time.

“I think in every team, you have a certain role. Obviously we’ve been lucky in having big ball carriers in the back row, so there’s not as much emphasis for me to be carrying the ball. It’s probably more of an emphasis of making sure you’re good in D, in clearing out and running support lines.”

Ulster are in Italy to take on Treviso [KO 1.35pm] in the return leg of their Heineken Cup Pool 5 double-header, and Court will remain focused on bettering himself in any way he can. Perceptions might be difficult to shift, but the 32-times capped Ireland international is concentrating on other things.

“The big thing for me, all along because I started late has been trying to improve. Even the things you think you’re good at, whether it be scrum or whatever, can always be better. It’s one of those things where you need to stay hungry otherwise you’ll start treading water and sliding down the hill.”

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