- 25 Jul 19
Six Nations, PRO14 and Champions Cup medals already bagged, ANDREW PORTER is now looking forward to Ireland’s Rugby World Cup adventures in Japan. A powerhouse prop who squats 350kg in the gym, the Leinster and Ireland prop forward talks Dublin food, heroes, haunts, and music as well as sporting glory and the importance of family with STUART CLARK.
IF you’ve noticed a certain litheness to my writing recently it could be because of the three stone I’ve lost through a combination of no longer eating all the pies and this thing, which isn’t for everybody, called exercise.
My girlfriend was shocked to discover that what she thought was a clothes airer in the bedroom is in fact the Clarkian home gym. Now divested of the jeans, t-shirts and jocks that were draped over it, it’s been experiencing some serious 90kg lat pulldown action.
My hopes that this places me among Dublin’s bodybuilding elite are cruelly dashed, however, when I meet Andrew Porter, the Leinster and Ireland tighthead prop, who matter-of-factly tells me that he’s been squatting 350kg in Southside, the Stillorgan gym where he does his personal training.
I’ve met a lot of rugby players – Brian O’Driscoll, Jordan Larmour, Bundee Aki, Rob Kearney and Jamie Heaslip among them – but the 23-year-old from Cabinteely is a whole different level of big.
To maintain his ripped bulk – never mind inch, there isn’t a milimetre to pinch – Porter has to consume upwards of 5,000 calories a day, which is just as well, given his apparent Steak & Chips addiction!
This being the day before he goes into World Cup training camp in Kildare’s Carton House – before flying off to Japan Ireland also have ‘friendlies’ against Italy, England and Wales to prep for – Andrew is enjoying a final chill with the papers in his favourite D18 café, Urbun (Watermint, Old Bray Road, Cabinteely, D18), which – as Best Of Dublin joins him – is blaring out Fontaines D.C.’s ‘Boys In The Better Land’.
“They really take their music seriously here,” enthuses Porter who’s still on a high from seeing Metallica last weekend at Slane. “Now that was amazing,” he resumes. “I actually got quite emotional because they haven’t gigged in Ireland in about a decade. To see them was something else. It was great that they paid tribute to Thin Lizzy by playing ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ and visited Phil’s statue on Harry Street beforehand. His mum, Philomena Lynott, dying this week was very sad.”
I’m imagining that Andrew’s fondness for thrash metal isn’t shared by too many of his teammates.
“I get a boot thrown at me if I go anywhere near the sound system,” he laughs. “I put some Slayer on in Ireland camp, which lasted about 30 seconds before being knocked off. James Ryan and Cian Healy are the go-to men for music on the bus. They’ve eclectic tastes, so it could be pretty much anything… except for Slayer!”
Does he play or sing himself?
“I used to dabble in a bit of guitar but, you know, my hands aren’t really made for it. I can belt out an okay ‘Raglan Road’ by Luke Kelly or Men At Work’s ‘Down Under’ when the occasion calls for it!”
It isn’t only rugby boots that teammates throw at Andrew.
“I was rooming with Keith Healy for a while, and he had a bedside locker with bottles to lob at me when I snored. Plastic ones, not glass!”
So what are his other favourite places for a good nosh-down? Along with Urbun who do a legendary Bacon Butty smothered in Ballymaloe relish, Andrew is often to be found with a napkin round his neck in F.X. Buckley in Monkstown where there’s an 18oz Rib Eye on the menu.
“I don’t know how many of their amazing steaks I’ve demolished,” he laughs. “If I’m craving even more meat, I’d go to My Meat Wagon in Smithfield Market Square. They’ve good food too in my local, the Horse & Hound (Bray Road, Kilbogget, Cabinteely, D18).”
Asked whether he’s flirted at all with veganism, Andrew looks horrified.
“It’s not really my thing,” he says, “but I do cook a lot. I make a good risotto; you’ve got to nurture it. Sometimes I throw in some seafood and make it more of a paella.”
His love of being in the kitchen comes from his mum, Wendy, who died from breast cancer when he was only twelve.
“She was a brilliant cook and got me to help her whenever I wasn’t out playing sport,” he recalls. “I have all of her handwritten recipes in a little book back at home.”
Saying to the object of your desires, “Let me cook you dinner”, isn’t a bad dating technique.
“It’s a great one!” he laughs again. “Cooking is a brilliant way of switching off if you’ve lost a game, or something else is preying on your mind.”
Having started with Ireland’s 54-7 demolition of Italy in Chicago, Andrew’s amazing 2018/’19 season continued with the Aviva Park smitings of Argentina and New Zealand.
“Playing in a winning side against the All Blacks was a childhood dream come true,” he enthuses. “I got about twenty minutes. It was one of the fastest games I’ve ever played in. The ball was up one end of the pitch and then down the other because they can move it so fast. We treated it like a cup tie – ‘one-off game, eighty minutes, anything can happen’. The confidence that comes from beating the best team in the world – they’ve been No.1 for I don’t know how long – is massive. You never ever underestimate the All Blacks, but were we to come up against them in the World Cup we definitely wouldn’t be frightened going onto the pitch.”
Andrew and his teammates were brought back down to earth with a resounding bang when their Six Nations campaign started with defeat to a rampant England at Twickenham. “Hopefully we can make partial amends for that when we play England in the run-up to the World Cup. They’re very physical. What we learned from the defeat is that you’ve got to bully the bully, and get your own hits in.”
Bundee Aki told me shortly after making his Ireland debut that you don’t know how much it’s possible for a body to ache until you’ve played international rugby.
“Provincial rugby is tough, but, yeah, it’s different level stuff,” Andrew concurs. “Nathan Hughes, Courtney Lawes… they’re all big fellas. I felt a few of them under the ribs. I haven’t played against the Springboks yet; they’ve got some real bruisers trying to bash their way over the gameline.”
It’s a measure of the Irish team’s character that they bounced back after England to beat Scotland who, of course, are their first World Cup opponents.
“They’re a very dogged team and, physically, fairly ruthless. It’s a case of trying to out-physical them – the first ten, fifteen minutes of the game are absolutely critical – and doing all of your own stuff right. It’s hard playing catch-up if you lose the lead early on. You really have to claw your way back.”
A good few of the Scotland lads were in the Glasgow Warriors team that Leinster beat 18-15 at Celtic Park in May to retain their Guinness PRO14 title.
“It was a home game pretty much for them, so it was important to put it up to their fans,” Andrew reflects. “We were extra pumped because of losing two weeks earlier to Saracens in the Champions Cup Final. I was gutted not to be involved in that game, but on the day they were the better team. Celtic Park or Parkhead, or whatever it’s officially called these days, is one of the most famous stadiums in the world, and the atmosphere was amazing. The Aviva’s hard to beat when it’s rocking, but the other night that sticks in my mind atmosphere-wise was two years ago when we went to Bilbao. The amount of Leinster fans who’d managed to get tickets for that Champions Cup Final was incredible, and was a major factor in us beating Racing. Like the New Zealand game, I can’t really remember much of the lead-up, other than it felt crazy being in Spain, and playing rugby in this incredible soccer stadium. A standout I do remember after the game was being able to go over and celebrate with my dad in the stand. There were a few tears in his eyes. There were a few tears in my eyes! The flights are a bit expensive but I’m hoping that dad and my sisters, Erica and Leigh, will be over in Japan.”
Looking at Andrew’s tree trunk muscles, it’s hard to get your head round the fact that he’s the baby of the family.
“Oh, they’re real older, protective sisters!” he confirms. “Erica was over in Manchester in 2016 for practically all of the Under-20s World Cup, which I was playing in. We topped our group but got beaten in the final by England. It was great to get a taste of tournament rugby, but Japan will be totally different intensity-wise.”
The World Cup will be an emotional farewell for Joe Schmidt. How does he compare with Andrew’s Leinster coach, Leo Cullen?
“Joe is possibly more hands-on with everything. He’ll do all the set-plays and drills and then be with the backs as well. At Leinster, Leo’s mainly the forwards’ coach and obviously does a lot of the tactics as well. They’re both very approachable and happy to sit down and chat about anything that’s on your mind. The psychological side of the game’s huge, so having people right up to the level of coach that you can talk to is really important. Jordan Larmour did a sports psychology course, which sounded really interesting. I’m currently slow-tracking Economics at UCD – I’m about halfway through and doing a module here and there – but psychology is something I might look at in the future.”
Are the Ireland lads pleased that their current defence coach, Andy Farrell, is the man taking over from Joe Schmidt?
“Yeah, delighted,” Andrew enthuses. “He’s a great coach and nice guy to have around too. The continuity he’ll bring is really important because he knows the squad inside out. At the same time, he’s his own man so undoubtedly there’ll be some changes.”
With the World Cup just four months away, is there a sense of places in the starting XV still being up for grabs?
“Definitely,” he nods. “With the amount of depth in the squad, I don’t think any spot is set in stone. There will be a lot of chopping and changing and different combinations tried out in the four games we’ve got prior to the World Cup, so hopefully I might get a start.”
The home and away against Wales offer further opportunities for Six Nations revenge.
“It was really tough playing them over in Cardiff,” he admits. “They had a Grand Slam to play for and we gave away too many penalties. To beat Wales, you need to be disciplined and not make unforced errors. We need to demonstrate when we play them next that we’ve learned from that defeat.”
Who are the players that just being around you learn stuff from? “Someone who was almost a god at Leinster was Isa Nacewa. He taught me about respect and humility, both on and off the pitch. Playing in similar positions, Cian Healy and Tadgh Furlong would also be guys I really look up to. Having watched him as a kid, I was a bit starstruck meeting Cian, but you get over it!”
Andrew’s first time being coached was aged five when his dad took him to Old Wesley. When did he realise that he was a substantially better player than most of his pals?
“Around sixth year, but I didn’t really know I wanted to play professional rugby until I was in my twenties. From there it’s happened really fast. I was never in any of the Leinster schools sides, so I kind of jumped the queue a bit. I played Irish schools under-18s but never Leinster. About four of the lads from my school, St. Andrew’s College, were on the team, which is unheard of because usually it’s filled up with Blackrock and Michael’s, the big rugby schools. I made lifelong friends at Old Wesley, which is a brilliant club. They look after kids really well.”
By way of a tribute to his mum, his left-arm is tattoed with the name ‘Wendy’, a dove and a statue in Rome, the city where they holidayed together before she died in 2008.
“I’m very honoured to be involved with the Irish Cancer Society,” he says. “My first major thing with them was the Strides For Life campaign, which was getting the message out that exercise reduces the risks of getting cancer or, if you’ve been diagnosed, it coming back. Rory O’Loughlin’s family have been similarly effected, so we’ve talked about both that and the importance of Daffodil Day. Hopefully our stories can help people going through the same things. Losing mum was terrible, but it’s made me who I am today and, in many ways, stronger.”
The tattoo dedicated to his mum is a stunning piece of art. Who does his inking?
“I got my left-arm and leg done in Skin City (4 Ormond Quay Lower, D1) and my right-arm done just last week in Lost Gallery (Nore Road, Cabra East, D11).”
High pain threshold or not, they must have feckin’ hurt.
“The last session on my calf was eleven-and-a-half hours so, yeah, I was gritting my teeth a bit,” he admits. “Being a Japanese-style design it’s very intricate. I’d love to get one done in Japan itself, but it’s very taboo there because of the Yakuza gang connections.”
Truth be told, I’m a little disappointed that Andrew hasn’t brought his beloved beagle, Cheika, with him to Urbun.
“I’m sure he’d be barking all over the place here and trying to rob food off everybody,” he concludes with a smile. “When I was in first year, we were allowed to get a dog on the condition that my dad named him and, sure enough, he named him after the previous Leinster coach, Michael Cheika. He’s ten now and, like his namesake, a legend. I take him round the local park or up Killiney Hill. He judges me by the quality of the walks he gets, not by my rugby exploits, so I try and mix it up a bit!”