IN HIS RECENT autobiography, Geordan Murphy spoke at length about being The Outsider.
He felt so strongly, he named the whole book for the feeling.
There was more to being an outsider than merely playing his club rugby exclusively in England, but it was a massive part of it.
It’s a state many Irish players have felt over the years, but recently only a few have managed to shine bright enough to win caps despite the geography of their employer.
“I think Geordan was picked at a time when the Premiership was clearly a stronger league,” says Worcester Warriors’ Irish tight-head prop, John Andress.
“When he won his first caps for Ireland, Leicester were double Heineken Cup winners. Now the celtic league clubs are fighting their case in Europe by winning it for the last two seasons, in the case of Leinster. So, they (Ireland coaches) don’t feel the need to pick abroad.”
Mike Ross, currently the corner-stone of Ireland’s pack, was 29-years-old and had locked down scrums routinely in England before he finally received his first Ireland cap as a Leinster player in the summer of 2009. Andress is 28 and the comparison with Ross goes further than just the Harlequins shirt he used to wear.
‘Rossy hasn’t improved’
It has become something of a trend for Irish rugby over the past decade: the country has one tight-head prop and, if he goes down? Then what?
We only seem to cross the bridge when we’re unbalanced and about to fall off it.
As Andress speaks to TheScore.ie in his gravelly Belfast baritone, the confidence in his own ability seeps through. As he sees it, the 2008 Ross is not a world away from the man who has shored up the Leinster and Ireland set-piece for three years.
“In my view, Rossy hasn’t improved overly much since he played in the Premiership. He wasn’t getting many opportunities then, but he could have easily filled the void.
“Especially at the tail end of John Hayes’ career when it was clear to see he was not capable of that (top level of) consistency. He had a fantastic career, but you’ve got to remember that the guy was - pfft, what age? – and he played so many games.”
Hayes was 36, with over 100 caps to his name before much action to train up a realistic replacement was undertaken.
“It was a tough ask on him to be playing so many games when there was someone as good as Mike Ross sitting in the Prem’. It took him to come home, and probably a year after that, to break into the Irish team.”
At the minute, running home is not something Andress is keen on. Fighting for his place is one thing, but with three provinces having drafted in southern hemisphere stars to play at number three he would much prefer play rugby every week than watch it.
“You can do all the scrummaging training in the world and playing in the (Ulster Bank League) and A games and that, but if you’re not getting exposure against top level props then you’re not going to learn.
“The only way you learn is by playing at that level week-in, week-out, or at least one week in every two. I just don’t feel, back in Ireland, the younger props are getting that exposure. Especially when it comes to the bigger games.”
“In the Premiership, I’m probably the only starting tight-head in the Premiership that’s not internationally capped. I’m playing against international loose-heads, top quality, every single week. It’s a really hard scrummaging league.”
Andress in action for Ireland under 20s. ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy
Andress describes scrummaging as an art form. It’s a skill which can be taught, but the best only become the best through experience. And experience can only come with opportunity.
Andress spoke to TheScore.ie on his day off, hours before Declan Kidney announced his 31-man November squad. The troop still had a vacancy for a tight-head and the head coach announced that he would watch Worcester’s Friday-night win over Tony Buckley and Sale.
Predictably, the squad was widened to 38 last night without a call for Andress. Unpredictably, Michael Bent was called in from Taranaki.
From the outside, it would seem the Warriors’ acquisition of Lions tourist Euan Murray could marginalise the Belfast man at club level too. Again, though, Andress’ confidence is as unshakeable as his scrummaging.
“I’ve played against Euan a good few times. He’s obviously a very good tight-head. But I don’t think he’s any better than I am. Any quality Premiership side has to have to really good tight-head props because of the league structure.” Andress says, adding:
“I’m looking forward to it and also think the competition will bring the best out of me. He’s a quality player to have in your squad and it’s all about the team at the end of the day.”
It’s a different frequency of competition that Andress insists requires two experienced number threes, but it is an area Ireland have been lacking for too long, While opposition nations are able to reignite their set-piece after 60 minutes by calling a fresh burly prop from the bench, Ireland have persisted until the scrum turns to a backpedaling maul.
The Former Belfast and London Harlequin is unwavering in his belief that his position is best served by getting down and dirty at the coal-face, and he would advise any young prop to choose brutal raw experience over the comforts of home.
“I played two years in the Championship. It’s a tough league like, you’ll learn a lot there. I think there’s only so much you can do in a high performance unit. Age grade rugby; you can only push so far and you can only do this…
“Then they get into the 20s, which is a good arena, but you only have a year for that. As soon as you’re out of that a lot of props are getting contracts with clubs and they’re not getting a high enough standard of rugby and it’s limited what they can do in the club, scrummaging wise.
“I don’t know what a high performance unit is going to do with them.”