Saturday 21 October 2017

'I did jersey justice while I had it' - Mike Ross reflects on his career

Mike Ross starts for Leinster tonight in what will be one of his final games for the province. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Mike Ross starts for Leinster tonight in what will be one of his final games for the province. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

If anyone deserves a victory lap to mark his contribution to Leinster and Irish rugby, it's Mike Ross, but knowing the Fermoy native he'll be determined to ensure that tonight won't be his last outing at the RDS.

They'll make a fuss of him at the last regular-season game against Glasgow Warriors but there is a semi-final to be played at the Ballsbridge venue next week. He's been behind Tadhg Furlong and Michael Bent in the pecking order for big games this season, but he doesn't take being written off lightly.

Yesterday, he sat alongside his former team-mate turned coach Leo Cullen who recalled playing against him in 2002 when Blackrock College hosted UCC in Division 2 of the All-Ireland League.

Ross was on the fringes at Munster, but couldn't break in ahead of Tony Buckley and the venerable John Hayes. Some might have given up, but the tighthead prop stuck at his task and while he had to wait, he got his reward.

Considering he was just short of his 30th birthday when he made his Ireland debut against Canada in Vancouver in 2009, the fact that he would go on and win 60 more is a remarkable feat.

That summer, he moved from Harlequins to Leinster and a year later he began making up for lost time on the medal front. He would finish with two Heineken Cups, two PRO12s, two Six Nations and a Challenge Cup.

In between, there was frustration at Munster and a shot at the top via a trial at Harlequins.

It was the scenic route to the top.

"People tell me I'm very stubborn," he reflected. "If I have something in my head, I will try to get there however I can. Certainly, there was quite a bit of luck.

Dean Richards took a punt on me at Harlequins. If he hadn't done that, I wouldn't be sitting here today. You need a little bit of right place, right time.

"I still had to go out and get an opportunity to have a trial over there in the first place.

"I would have gone to a few of the big (Munster) games at the time during their European odysseys; playing against Sale when Sebastien Chabal got smashed on the kick-off... but at the same time I was on the bench for one game against Ulster - the one where Barry Murphy made bits of his ankle - and I never got on.

"So, I would have liked to have had an opportunity but it didn't work out that way and there was Tony Buckley and John Hayes around, John Hayes never got injured (laughs) ... I needed to have an opportunity to play and that's what young players need. They just need to play.

"When the opportunity came to play at a higher level, I took it."

The 2014 Six Nations title is, he says, the highlight of his time with Ireland; the 2011 Heineken Cup final win over Northampton Saints the most memorable of his 151 outings in blue.

"Definitely, because the depth of emotion that we were at, at half-time, compared to the elation at the end of it would take some beating," he reflected.

"Before 2014, I had never won anything in an Ireland shirt.

"I remember at the time I was in the Stade de France, I'd come off and there was about five minutes left and they looked like they were going to score, they looked like they were going to score and I think Dave Kearney just put enough pressure on, was it their second-row (Pascal Papé), threw a mildly forward pass.

"So when the final whistle went there was that elation. I had been on the periphery of the Grand Slam squad in 2009 so for me it was a big personal moment."

Like John Hayes before him and Tadhg Furlong, the successor whose development he played a part in, he believes his farming background played a pivotal role in his development into a top-class prop.

"If you come from a rural and especially a farming background, you grow up doing physical work," he said.

"It does give you a good grounding, the farmer strength as everyone calls it.

You come here and you get the gym strength into you too, so you've a good base to operate off so you don't have to spend a lot of time getting up to speed.

"I spent my youth with my dad who didn't like to spend a lot of money on things like crushes for cattle so you'd to go and catch them in the field, so that definitely helps."

Tonight, he gets his formal farewell to the RDS. He won't want this to be his last outing in a blue jersey, but if it is he hopes to be remembered by his team-mates "as someone who made the most of himself".

"I probably came a very different path to most lads to the professional game; just to show lads that you don't have to do the schools, Academy traditional route to get into the team," he said. "There are other options. You can see that with players coming through the non-traditional pathways and if it gave them a bit of an example that you can do it, I would be happy with that.

"I'd like to think (he's leaving the jersey in a better place). If you look at the players who wore the No 3 jersey before me, there are some great names there so I wouldn't take it quite that far. I think I did it justice while I had it."

Irish Independent

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