Wily Ross refusing to accept that set-piece is headed for tight spot
Published 30/03/2016 | 02:30
For all the things that Joe Schmidt will have learned from the Six Nations campaign, perhaps the most startling of all will be the fact that Ireland remain overly-reliant on evergreen veteran Mike Ross.
The Cork native's relentless desire to play for his country shows no signs of letting up but this season his body has had other ideas and Ireland suffered as a result.
Ross will turn 37 later this year and will be 39 by the time the next World Cup rolls around but Ireland's struggles at the scrum in the opening two Six Nations games, against Wales and France, again illustrated their dependence on him.
Granted, Ireland were without Marty Moore, who missed the tournament with a similar hamstring injury that kept Ross out for almost three months, but Tadhg Furlong, who many people see as the long-term answer to the tighthead issue, struggled against France.
Having been selected as a late bolter for last year's World Cup, Furlong was expected to push on in this season's Six Nations but he failed to appear again after the defeat in Paris and was instead sent back to Leinster.
As someone who only made his international debut as a 30-year old, Ross understands that it often takes time for tighthead props to develop into the position but he also knows that, in such a complex aspect of the game, the referee's interpretation of the scrum is so important.
"I thought some of the referee's decisions were pretty harsh (against France)," Ross admits.
"There are times when the scrum just isn't being refereed that well. They're not really looking at the bigger picture of who's causing the issues.
"I know it's difficult for referees and when it goes wrong in the scrum you can often put the blame on two or three different things, but at the same time, some things are pretty obvious - like the loosehead driving in on the angle or guys stepping around."
An element of sympathy for Furlong and Nathan White then but working under such an astute coach like Schmidt, the finer details matter most.
"He's (Furlong) a tremendous player around the pitch and he's been doing pretty well in the games he's played in, scrum-wise. It's not like he's a bad scrummager. He's a very good scrummager," Ross says glowingly of Furlong's ability.
"I think it's just that little bit of experience but that will come. Maybe a little bit more consistency but I think he's a great player and between himself and Marty, they'll be propping up the Irish scrum for the next decade at least.
Injury problems have limited Moore to winning just nine caps since his debut in 2014 and as he gets set to join Wasps next season, it's a move that Ross can certainly relate to.
Having spent three years with Harlequins, Ross firmly believes that the move to England was the making of him as an international-quality prop but he also warned of the dangers.
"The Premiership is a tough league. The one down side is that you won't be looked after as well as you are over here," he maintains.
"When I was over there, I played 14 80-minute games on the bounce. That just would not happen in Ireland.
"It can be a bit of a meat grinder but at the same time, Wasps have reasonable strength in depth so that shouldn't happen. There should be a good rotation policy.
"Sometimes it takes you a bit of time to learn your trade and come through. Marty is going to the Premiership and that can make or break you. It's about how well your body holds up."
John Hayes spent a decade propping up the Ireland scrum and although there may be more young pretenders on the scene nowadays, it is Ross who remains crucial to Ireland's set-piece.
He may not be concerned about the apparent reliance on him but Ross does insist that the problems in this country stem from under-age rugby.
"It's a strange position. Your body has to absorb a lot of pressure. At tighthead you're often pushing two against one because you'll have their hooker and loosehead coming at you," he explains.
"You have to learn quickly. It requires a certain body frame, a certain mindset and a certain level of strength.
"It's not a very glamorous position either. Kids probably don't look at it when they're younger. At schools, you're only allowed push a metre and a half so that makes things difficult as well because then you'll often see a more mobile guy selected over the better scrummager.
"Then, when it comes to playing the big boys, suddenly you have these kids who could survive at schools level but they just can't at higher levels."
Ross is proof that it often takes time for tighthead props to develop but with such a gruelling schedule ahead, Ireland could certainly do with another of similar quality to help lighten the load.