Monday 20 January 2020

Playing fast and loose

Leinster ace Porter needs to return to loose head to realise his potential

POWERHOUSE: Andrew Porter of Leinster during the Champions Cup match against Benetton at the RDS. Pic: Sportsfile
POWERHOUSE: Andrew Porter of Leinster during the Champions Cup match against Benetton at the RDS. Pic: Sportsfile

It was the eve of the 2016 U20 World Cup final. England coach Martin Haag would have been well aware of how to stop Ireland, in their first final, at the AJ Bell Stadium.

They would place a heavy emphasis on Ireland's Big Three up front - James Ryan, Max Deegan and Andrew Porter.

Loose-head Porter had terrorised the tournament with his physicality on both sides the ball. He had earned the nickname 'The Terminator' for good reason, flying up out of the line to obliterate opponents.

The English implemented a two-man plan on the gain line to stop Porter from gaining momentum. It worked. Of course, the long-term succession planners at Leinster would have known they had a diamond in their hands.

The question was: where would he be best polished? The coaches are notoriously slow to push players before they are ready to jump up to the professional game.

VETERAN: Cian Healy during Leinster squad training at Energia Park. Pic: Sportsfile
VETERAN: Cian Healy during Leinster squad training at Energia Park. Pic: Sportsfile

Nonetheless, ten weeks later, Porter made his PRO14 debut as a replacement against Benetton.

The first start on his second cap followed in February 2017 at loose-head, his one and only start in the position for the province.

At the time, there were just three tight-heads listed on Leinster's 2016/2017 squad against four loose-heads with Mike Ross three months away from retirement.

Scrum coach John Fogarty suggested Porter move to tight-head as a matter of necessity. He has been there ever since

Still. Times change. And so do personnel. This season, the Leinster senior squad includes four tight-heads, Furlong, Michael Bent, Vakh Abdaladze and Porter and three loose-heads, Cian Healy, Ed Byrne and Peter Dooley.

That trend continues in the Academy, where there are three tight-heads in Jack Aungier, Thomas Clarkson, and Roman Salanoa against just one loose-head Michael Milne.

Ireland brothers Cian Healy and Jack McGrath were battening down the hatches on the loose-head side of the scrum before Byrne began to edge out McGrath in the latter half of last season.

McGrath's departure for Ulster means Healy is backed up by Byrne and Dooley.

On the other side of the argument, Furlong has back-up from the solid Bent, Porter and the improving Abdaladze.

The World Cup in Japan opened up the opportunity for Porter to play both sides of the scrum due to the limitations around the squad, a role Furlong filled at the 2015 World Cup.

Leo Cullen is never one to encourage speculation unless there is some merit to it.

"The versatility for players at a World Cup, particularly for the 31-man squad, players have to be able to move around.

"Sometimes, for us, that is the case as well," he said last Friday.

"Ports is comfortable playing both sides, which is a very hard thing to do. Where his future lies in three or five years' time, who knows?"

It is about Ireland as much as it is about Leinster.

The choice is to challenge Tadhg Furlong - he turned 27 last week at Leinster or, by moving away like McGrath, from a different provincial perspective.

Porter has always been compared to Cian Healy as a freakish power athlete. Healy (32) is not a certainty for the next World Cup and a gradual handover to Porter could be in the pipeline.

His explosive athleticism is put on the back burner at tight-head, where the set-piece is paramount.

"It is an amazing skill to have, to be able to cover both sides of the scrum," said Cullen.

"He is very strong in the carry, brings good energy to the team.

"For a young tight-head, the scrum is always a challenge. More often than not, young tight-heads will have some tough days at the office.

"But, he's been excellent, applies himself, works hard in a good competitive area."

How long that will last is open to conjecture.

In the long-term, the balance of probability is that Porter will return to loose-head where Leinster and Ireland can get optimum value from his particular set of skills.

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