In sport there are no better reporters of the facts than the athletes themselves. As the League vs Union debate continues, we delve into the unexpected, the unheralded. A Q&A with a professional Rugby Union player whose story will not only amaze you, it will force you to consider the impossible. Rugby League and Rugby Union can coexist - and so they should!
Tom Court is living a childhood dream - a dream he never had as a child. The Australian-born Irish Rugby Union player had certainly taken the “road less travelled” when his professional sporting career took off at the unusual age of 24.
He recently returned from the Rugby Union World Cup where he played a role in the team’s unexpected win over the Wallabies. A League player growing up, Court speaks of the value of both Rugby League and Rugby Union, the physiological differences between the two sports, and why it’s important that today’s youth have access to both codes.
Whether you’re a fan of Rugby League or Rugby Union, you cannot help be motivated by this inspirational story. A story so rare, that most people would never dare to dream about it!
How does a country boy from Lowood, Qld, end up representing Ireland on Rugby Union's biggest stage?
The short version is I was attending the University of Queensland (UQ) in Brisbane, studying a Masters in Organizational Psychology. I was also shot putting for UQ and had won the Australian University Championships several times along with competing in the Sydney Olympic Trials. At the end of 2004, I was weighing around 140 kg and my doctor had told me my blood pressure was too high (165/110). It was recommended that I either commence more aerobic exercise or begin medication for high blood pressure. There were flyers in the gym where I trained, advertising club rugby to all-comers. In my first season, I started playing prop in 6th grade 'social' rugby and finished the season starting in the Premier Grade (1st Grade) Grand Final. I was then drafted into the Qld 'A' squad followed by moving to New Zealand to play for Manawatu in the NPC. I then moved back to Qld and was invited to start training with the Qld Reds, which led to me playing in the first 3 games of the 2006 Super 14 season. As a full contract was not available until the following season, I began looking for contract opportunities. As I had an Irish passport, Ulster were interested and offered me a 2-year contract. Before my first game for Ulster, I played in the Churchill Cup in the USA and Canada during 2006. Since then, I have been training and playing for Ulster for 6 seasons. I was first selected for Ireland during the 2009 Six Nations in which we won the Six Nations and the Grand Slam.
Your career as a professional athlete began at a relatively late age (24). What was the most difficult aspect of the transition?
The main difference between shot putting and rugby union is obviously the level of cardiovascular fitness required. Both sports involve an explosive power component, speed and agility. My weightlifting and training for shot-put placed me in good stead for many parts of rugby union. My fitness has been gradually improving since I started playing but continues to be a battle as I started playing at such a late age. The other main challenge for me has been learning the game and tactics involved in playing rugby union. Certain players are said to be naturals and have great rugby-awareness, most of which have been playing from a young age. Learning positional play and rugby spatial awareness has been extremely challenging and a continual learning curve.
How would you describe your World Cup experience?
It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience that's hard to explain. A few years ago I would have laughed at the thought of playing in a World Cup, yet now I look back and can't believe it’s all over. The lead-up to the RWC was one of the most thrilling and stressful times of my life. I will always remember the fantastic few weeks in NZ and feel very proud and privileged to have played in so many games in a RWC.
The win over Australia was one of the biggest upsets of the tournament. Describe the feeling when the full time siren sounded.
The funny thing is I hadn't thought about the result until the final whistle blew. Once I heard the whistle, I thought we've done it, we've beaten the Aussies. The feeling in the team room before the game was electric and different to any game I’ve ever played. I just had a special feeling like something good was about to happen. It will go down as one of the highlights of my career.
What was the reaction like from your family and friends back home in Australia?
My family was obviously cheering for Ireland so they were extremely happy. My wife and father were in the crowd enjoying the atmosphere of the occasion. I played club rugby and Super 14 with quite a few of the Australian players as well, but they were in a much different mood after the game. I caught up with a few of them in Wellington after the dust had settled during the finals. Most friends in Australia were a little torn, as they were happy for me but disappointed at the result.
You played Rugby League as a youngster, how did that prepare you for the switch over to Rugby Union?
I think playing rugby league gave me some of the basic skills required and a taste for contact. Rugby Union is a complex game with certain closed skills like scrummaging and line-out lifting but many of the basic elements and goals of league and union are very similar. I played rugby league at a representative level, as you would know, but eventually gave up to attend university and to pursue athletics.
Do you think it's easier for Rugby League players to make the transition to Rugby Union? Why, why not?
Players have less rules to worry about in rugby league, less players to fill the field and probably less areas of vagueness or interpretation when it comes to refereeing. I also think rugby league requires a higher level of fitness to compete at the highest level. It is rare that you would see a rugby union player convert to rugby league, probably because rugby union tends to be more widespread across the world, and the positions tend to require specific skills. However, rugby league players with good skills can convert to rugby union, usually throughout the backs, with not too many problems.
In the United States there is an ongoing debate over which code is better. Do you think it's important for youngsters to have access to both League and Union? Why, Why not?
I think it is important for kids to have access to both codes, firstly for a bit of variety and also because certain codes may suit certain types of players. When I was growing up, I did not have access to playing rugby union due to the schools I attended. In Australia, public schools tend to play rugby league where as private schools tend to encourage rugby union. It does tend to become linked with socio-economic class in some countries which is detrimental for both codes and all involved.
What would be your advice to youngsters who dream of becoming a professional Rugby League/Union player?
Work hard on the basics: passing, running lines, defense, fitness and power. All good players are powerful, fit players with great basic skills. Furthermore, always be willing to listen, practice tirelessly and improve. If you continue to get better, sooner or later you will reach the top. Sometimes the most important factor to improving and becoming a professional rugby player is staying injury-free and staying on the pitch. The best way to learn is by playing the game, and the more you play and learn, the better you'll get.
What was the best piece of advice you've ever been given?
Keep working hard and one day you'll look up, and descend into greatness. You cannot beat a relentless work ethic and the right attitude.