It does not take long in Guy Porter’s company to appreciate why Eddie Jones has taken such a shine to him. The Aussie twang is unmistakable but equally there is a stiff upper lip to the centre that illustrates why Jones had no qualms handing him a first cap in Brisbane last week – a match England could ill-afford to lose – in one of the most crucial positions on the field, and why he continues there on Saturday.
Porter is the newest member of the England setup but already – and understandably given his background – he has been swiftly appointed one of the squad’s tour guides. He had been back to Sydney once since leaving Australia for Leicester in 2020 – an unfortunately timed trip that was mostly spent quarantining inside a hotel room – but this week he is in his element, telling the story of his roundabout journey into the heart of England’s midfield in familiar surroundings, just a stone’s throw from the idyllic Coogee beach.
“It’s a funny position where my Australian mates tell me I sound English and all English people tell me I sound Australian,” says Porter, who has been given the nickname “Doc” by his new teammates on account of his initials. “I’m stuck in the middle a bit.” Do not confuse a muddled accent for any conflicted views on lining up for England on debut in Australian rugby’s stronghold against a number of former teammates, however. For while Porter spent his formative years in Australia, moving there aged seven before going on to represent a formidable Sydney University side and earning a spot on the Brumbies roster, he always felt the pull of his English roots.
“There was no reservation. It was something I had thought about in theory, when I re-signed [with Leicester in February] and whether coming back to Australia was something I wanted to do,” says Porter, who reveals there was interest from Super Rugby sides before he committed to the Tigers again. “I wanted to build a career rather than just jump around all types of markets. Playing in England and in the Premiership at the level you aspire to, you’re going to force your way into those conversations hopefully. I had no reservations about jumping into it.”
That door initially opened with the move to Leicester two summers ago, and then became a more realistic prospect when their head coach, Steve Borthwick, tapped him on the shoulder and posed the question. It finally became a reality in June of this year when, the day after the Tigers’ Premiership final triumph over Saracens, his phone pinged and he was told to be in London to meet up with England the next day.
“I had no prior indication until the night after the final, which made it a pretty quick turnaround to get into camp and get my head around it,” adds Porter. “I just had a message saying I’d be announced in the squad and I needed to get to London on Monday. I was celebrating with family and friends. I had three friends fly over for the game and I had to apologise to them and send them on their way. It was a hastily packed bag.”
Porter was born in Kensington and made his first foray into rugby at Rosslyn Park, inspired by Jonny Wilkinson’s extra-time drop goal in the 2003 World Cup final. Little did he know at that stage that the following year he would be upping sticks for Sydney, a city in which his rugby career flourished, first at Scots College, then at Sydney Uni. Jones has been taken by the fact that was where Porter honed his talents, stating: “He’s that no-nonsense, bustling Sydney Uni centre. Runs hard, chases kicks. That’s all Sydney Uni ever does and he does that really well.” That may sound like a back-handed compliment, but it is that no-frills stoicism that sets Porter apart.
It is a quality that has served Porter well to date, whether that be when he barely played for two of what should have been key developmental years due to two shoulder reconstructions and ankle surgeries, or when he took the decision to move to Leicester during lockdown. Jones likes players who have taken the road less travelled and shown some initiative, and he will have approved of how Porter, having spent most of the 2020 Super Rugby season in Covid bubbles, decided the time was right to move back to England and “reconnect with my younger years”.
He was helped by the fact that his Sydney Uni coach, Robert Taylor, had moved to Leicester and facilitated an introduction with Borthwick, and it did not take long for Porter to be convinced that was where his future lay. He made the move with Harry Potter, another dependable cog in the Leicester backline, but there were times when Porter wondered whether he had made the right decision. His debut came in August 2020, when the season restarted after a pandemic-enforced stoppage and when the Tigers’ rebuild was in its infancy. That day Leicester were thumped by Bath and some humbling defeats, most notably away to Wasps, followed.
“It was definitely a difficult 10 months or so. Lockdown made it more challenging,” he says. “In Australia at that point they were living without restrictions and friends were having great summers. Steve had a lot that he was trying to implement. It was a new setup, a new team and we suffered some pretty hefty defeats. I probably didn’t appreciate how much turnover there had been in the Leicester squad, I was probably a bit naive about that.”
Perseverance has paid off, with a Premiership winners’ medal and on Saturday a second cap as England run out at the Sydney Cricket Ground for the first time since 1975. It is not a venue at which Porter has previously played, though one he knows well from his days watching Ashes Tests as an England supporter. His most vivid memory is an ominous one – that of the Australian pace bowler Ryan Harris breaking Michael Carberry’s bat – but if that typified a brittleness to that particular England side, Porter is made of sterner stuff.
July 15, 2022 at 07:35PM Gerard Meagher in Sydney