Andrew Porter: ‘You have to be selfish. It’s about you. It’s about the team’

The Ireland prop on the Six Nations and powering through on the pitch and in life

He doesn’t chase the numbers any more. As a teenager he was obsessed by them: the bench press, the squat, the deadlift. He lent a lot of time to reps and poundage and it has paid off. His name is among the vanguard of heavy lifters. But heaving all that weight for weight’s sake no longer drives him. Andrew Porter’s not interested. He has rugby to play.

Squat? “Three, two, five,” he says sheepishly.

Kilos? “Yeah, kilos.”

It’s a benchmark point he agrees. Reluctantly. Better than Healy, Furlong, McGrath, Ruddock, O’Brien... A strong man among strong men. Porter shrugs it off. What goes on in the gym stays in the gym.

“I don’t want to say,” he says of whose record he took. “We’re both at the stage where we don’t have to chase numbers. It’s a fun thing. I found myself chasing numbers at the beginning. But now I just maintain it.

“Now I focus on the technical side. A lot of guys at my age would find themselves having to catch up in terms of physical size. I almost did it the other way around. Now I clean up percentages here and there, my speed, my ball carrying, my ruck, my clear-outs...”

It has worked out well for the tighthead prop; from being a 12-year-old, confused and vulnerable after the tragic death from cancer of his mother, Wendy, to a gym-obsessed teenager. Along the trails of those badlands, rugby provided purpose and direction and also fed an adolescent infatuation with being big.

The gym became a solid structure around which a daily routine was built. With the deft touch and guidance of teacher David Jones, grief, as Porter explains it, turned towards compulsion.

That compulsion spun him into a love affair with rugby and strength. He would walk into a gym and something would fire. It was both a comfort zone and a driving force. The infatuation has him where he is now.

Today he is wrapped up from a chill wind. Today is better than the hundreds of kilos he moves in a gym session. He has walked the dog, a beagle, in Cabinteely Park, and is looking towards noon, when he will have his first meal of the day. His routine is based on intermittent fasting – eating only between noon and 8pm. “Lunch a few steaks, a few eggs, rice,” he says. Maybe 5,000 calories a day. “I enjoy knowing what I’m eating.”

I had to learn how to breathe in the scrum. I knew it would be a risk

It has been a week of significant movement . Yesterday he turned 23. It is the day after his name appeared in Joe Schmidt's Six Nations squad. Yes, a birthday present of sorts. In his head a line went through one of his set goals.

There is a speed in the way things have been shaping for him, almost too fast to catch and hold for any length of time. A Six Nations, a Triple Crown and a Grand Slam at 22. It could be conceived that it came too easy. But his early days were defined by living with challenge and confronting adversity.

Because the frontrow in a scrum can be a strange place to be with those six interlocking heads and arms. It can feel like a prison. The losehead prop is in the general prison population. The tighthead prop is always in solitary confinement. The season before last he was given four compelling reasons to move from losehead prop to tighthead; Cian Healy, Jack McGrath, Peter Dooley and Ed Byrne were slapped on the table. A flush. Porter was in thrown the hole.

“You scrum at loosehead, you are scrumming on one person, just on the opposition tighthead,” he explains. “When you move to the tighthead side you have the loosehead and the hooker. So there is a lot more weight going through you. It took a while to get used to it, all the pressure coming through, standing up out of scrums gasping for air.

"I had to learn how to breathe in the scrum. I did know it would be a risk. But the coaches had my best interest in mind. They knew I was suited for the position. They knew I had the physical capabilities. Mike Ross was like a mentor for me, a complete scrum nerd. You don't have much time to sit and dwell on things. If you start doing that you miss the next moment."

It is a philosophy all the players hold. The programming is to instantly discard baggage, move on, always move on. It’s a tough psychological discipline. But the alternative is to be useless to the team. There can be no looking back. Porter has understood that from a young age.

Memories of moving on are clear. His mother, Wendy, was an athletic hockey player with Old Alex in the 1980s, when they were laced with international players and one of the strongest sides in Ireland. His father, Ernie, played rugby in the centre and brought him down to Old Wesley as a five-year-old. Those days stay with him.

“Yeah, he was a prop in the back line. That’s what I’ve been told by my sources,” he says conspiratorially. “I don’t even know if she was playing, but Mum would always be watching hockey and I’d be kicking a ball around the sideline.”

My mum died just as I was starting secondary school

He nods in agreement; you are not fully formed at 12 years old, emotionally and physically tied to your mother, your father. If that world fractures you can too. Grief can become a disabler.

Wendy died just as he was starting in St Andrew’s College, in Booterstown in south Co Dublin. His first day was the day after her funeral. New surroundings, unfamiliar faces and living in a changed landscape meant he struggled. Unequipped to articulate his overarching sense of detachment, a sort of shutdown took over him. As he moved forward, the greatest conflict of this child’s life was unresolved.

On the crook of his left arm is a dove in flight with his mother’s name tattooed between the wings: Wendy.

“Everybody has a different way of grieving,” he says. “It was a very difficult time for all of my family. I was 12 when she passed away. I went into first year the day after the funeral. You feel like you are on your own coming into a new school like that, not really knowing anyone. It was a tough year.

“I went through a lot of changes. I was a big kid to start off with. Then I went through a really skinny phase. Yeah, I lost a lot of weight. Went through a lot of personal problems which kind of led to that. The passing away of my mum.”

It doesn’t matter if he was anorexic or not, or what it was called, or not called, or called anything at all. But he had all of stopped eating. He hesitates for a moment.

I wasn't officially diagnosed with anything, but I pretty much stopped eating

“Yeah... I wasn’t officially diagnosed with anything,” he says. “Yeah, dramatic. Yeah, pretty much stopped eating. Pretty much. Not too long ago I remember seeing pictures of myself from that time. I couldn’t look at them. It’s strange... it’s different now... it’s the complete opposite now.

“I wouldn’t have been a great person then talking about anything like that. I would have bottled it up. Kept it to myself. I think that was another big factor that led to it. It lasted maybe two years. After that it was just building up to who I am now.”

Teachers often get a bad rap. The cheap anecdotes outstrip the good ones. Apart from the sense of affection and companionship he has for his father – a lump of melting pride waiting at the rails when he won his first cap in 2017 against the United States in New Jersey and again last year in Twickenham for Ireland’s Grand Slam – his teacher David Jones was also a compassionate and substantial guiding force.

He used to open the gym in the morning before school. Young Porter was a recognisable figure in the gloaming with his Tupperware containers of food. He had picked up hockey as a goalkeeper for a few years and played with Jordan Larmour, who was two years behind him. But he consumed rugby.

St Andrew's was not a conveyor-belt rugby school – although former students Peter Bracken and Ben Marshall showed how to break through. But rugby for the developing prop was a vehicle for distraction. Ambition was low level.

“I started going to the gym with David Jones,” he says. “It picked up when I joined a gym outside and found myself spending hours upon hours in there mainly to get away from everything. It was like I only went there to make myself feel good.

“I didn’t even really have a goal in mind. I mean I could have been missing school because I was going to the gym. The amount of hours I spent reading up, a workout plan, whatever would get me the biggest the fastest. That was what I was after more than anything.

“He would open the gym in the morning. But a lot of the time, in fifth, sixth year I’d be waking up at 4.30am, getting my food and walking up to the Luas line to my own gym. I’d train there before school. Then I’d get the bus into school. Then a whole day at school, maybe do rugby training afterwards. Then I’d go to the gym after doing rugby training. It was almost a compulsion that I had to go.”

Like all kids, in his head he dared to have fantasies of an Ireland jersey. But that’s where they stayed, locked up. A fool’s paradise. There were never wholly formed thoughts of becoming an international rugby player.

“No. Not at all,” he says. “I mean I had rugby in my mind the whole time. But, you know... I didn’t know I’d be playing [professional] rugby until after my second year in the under-20s. Then people started showing an interest in how I played.”

Two years after the under-20 epiphany and he's chasing Tadhg Furlong. Maybe, for now, it is too big a thought for him to hold. He's reluctant to say it. But he knows he must see his career as a constant challenge.

Votive offerings have been made to Furlong from far and wide. Porter says he is the “prototype” prop. “He’s everywhere, a great carrier, a great catch and pass, a ball player.”

But in 2017 against Italy, Furlong was injured after three minutes. Porter was tossed in and played for 77 minutes. Last season against Ulster, he, in a run more likely scripted by a cartoonist, burst out of defence absurdly scattering Darren Cave and Jacob Stockdale. Solid scrummager is a lazy insult.

“You can be running dummy lines,” he says. “You can be animating really well. You don’t have to always carry. But you have to show up for every scrum. You can’t knock off or you are toast.

“You’re pushing Tadhg to do better. The guy behind you is pushing you to do better. You’re also pushing yourself to get ahead of Tadhg. It’s ruthless; 2019 is a huge year. The ultimate goal for the guys is to be on that plane to Japan. You have to be selfish. It’s about you. It’s about the team. When you keep pushing, more doors do open.”

Years ago as a child, he went to Rome with his mother. They found a statue they liked with Latin writing on it and took a photograph.

“I have that one. Then I have one down on my leg, Japanese art that I liked for a few years. I have the dove and a few roses there. My mum’s name. Wendy. It’s physical art. I suppose memory and respect.” he says, patting his ink.

“Tattoos, yeah, I’m going to get more. I’ve a few in the pipeline,” he promises.

Go get them. Open another door.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times