Tom Court’s call-up to the British & Irish Lions squad has a real ‘right place at the right time’ feel to it, but the Ulster and Ireland prop loved every minute of his time on the pitch during Tuesday’s tour win over the Melbourne Rebels.
Tom Court was in summer holiday mode, switching off for a break with wife Cath and their children Theo and Maddy on the Gold Coast, when he received a voice mail on Sunday night from the Lions’ director of operations Guy Richardson.
An injury crisis had developed in the Lions’ front row ranks and Court, with 32 Ireland caps to his name, his best season with Ulster just behind him and given his proximity, was perfectly placed to come in as cover.
At first he thought it was a practical joke from one of his team-mates, but when Ireland team manager Michael Kearney followed up with a phone call to confirm the Lions needed him Court knew it was for real.
“I was literally tucking the kids into bed when I got a call from a blocked number. I did think it was a wind-up to start with,” said the former shot putter.
“I actually had a bit of trouble hearing it. It was only when Mick Kearney’s name came up that I realised this was for real and it all started to sink in. I guess that was when the nerves started going.
“I hadn’t considered it (getting a call-up). Okay, there were a lot of injuries but I’d be down the pecking order. I got a taxi to Brisbane in the morning, caught up with the team at the airport and then flew with them to Melbourne.
“It was just a bit hard getting through security without the actual Lions gear on but we got here in the end! I didn’t have a scrap with me, to be honest. I had to find contacts, mouth guard, boots, absolutely everything.
“They (the Lions) did brilliantly considering I only met up with them on Monday morning and they have been unbelievable looking after me.”
The presence of Ulster colleagues Rory Best and Tommy Bowe, amongst the familiar Irish faces, would have helped Court acclimatise to the Lions camp and he took part in the Captain’s Run session at AAMI Park having been added to the replacements bench for the Melbourne Rebels match.
“Graham Rowntree (the forwards coach) had a word with me and said, ‘Don’t think about it too much, just go out and play’. It was just about trying to make sure you gave it everything you had and didn’t let the boys down.”
Court and Best both came on for the final 25 minutes against the Rebels, playing their part as the Lions conjured up two more tries and kept an impressive clean sheet in a 35-0 victory.
The irony is not lost on Court that his Lions debut was only possible because of the calf injury sustained by Alex Corbisiero, the prop who gave him a torrid time in the scrums when England thumped Ireland 30-9 on a wet March day at Twickenham last year.
The 32-year-old, who came on as a tighthead replacement for the injured Mike Ross late in the first half, shipped a lot of criticism for Ireland’s scrummaging problems against the English.
“It is ironic. Alex was heavily involved in my lowest point in rugby and now has been responsible for my highest point. Maybe it’s a bit of justice,” he quipped.
But Court flourished during Ulster’s unbeaten start to the season under new head coach Mark Anscombe and was back on the international stage to win caps against Scotland and more recently the USA and Canada.
The Brisbane native is admittedly more comfortable at loosehead prop – just look at his form alongside Best and John Afoa in the Ulster front row – and his confidence has clearly been restored after that nightmare outing 15 months ago.
“I think I was on 29 caps for Ireland at that point and to be honest I didn’t think there’d ever be 30. I think I’m at 32 now, and this (playing for the Lions) obviously tops it all off. This is the peak of Mount Everest really,” he remarked.
“Rugby is just a funny old thing I guess. It’s a fickle sport and it’s just one of those things that you have to be robust and you have to be resilient, and just ride it out. You take the plaudits with a pinch of salt as well as the criticism and just keep doing your best.”
Speaking after the game against Melbourne, Court is happy to remain on as loosehead cover if Lions need him with Corbisiero reportedly set to miss the second Test against Australia.
“I don’t know what the situation is. Initially they said it would be a few days and now it’s a ‘wait and see’ because they are still not sure of the severity of Alex’s (injury).
“They are going to reassess tomorrow morning (Wednesday) once the dust settles and make their minds up.”
Court is now part of a select band of Australian-born players to have played for the Lions, including the great Tom Richards whom the trophy for the 2013 Test series is named after.
“It’s one of those things that is going to be hard to believe for a long time to come and I’m just going to enjoy having that red jersey. I think number 806, my Lions number, might be my new favourite number,” he added.