'I'm telling him sh** now' - Mike Ross on his competitive relationship with Marty Moore
Prop knew he had to take Irish chance after dropping at Leinster
Funny thing about alarms: they might go off a matter of metres away and you wouldn't bat an eye lid, or they might strike up in the next parish and you'd drop tools on the spot.
We were barely into the New Year last month when one went off that made a big impact on two men regardless of where they were standing. For Mike Ross, he was in the immediate vicinity and got it loud and clear; and for Joe Schmidt, some way removed from the scene, it sounded every bit as shrill.
Ross, a fixture in the Leinster front row, was being sidelined and it was a bigger issue for Ireland than it was for the province.
The background to Ross' dropping has clear implications for what happens in the Aviva next Sunday. In the back-to-back European Champions Cup ties in December, Leinster found themselves on the back foot - literally and figuratively - after the ties with Harlequins. In the first one at the Stoop, French referee Jerome Garces gave Ross a hard enough time at the scrum to make it debatable who was the tougher opponent: Quins and England loosehead Joe Marler, of the referee himself.
A week later in the Aviva and Romain Poite had taken over the reins, but with no great improvement in the quality of Ross' rough ride. So when the appointments were made for rounds five and six of the competition and Monsieur Garces was slotted into the driving seat for Wasps against Leinster, a game that did justice to the much-abused term 'vital', coach Matt O'Connor started measuring his tight margins and wondered if there was some room for manoeuvre at tighthead.
If he was going to make the big call, and swap Marty Moore for Ross, then it made sense to do it for round five, against Castres, to give Moore a chance to settle in.
"It's a matter of the coaches sitting down and making the assessment in relation to what's going to be important next week," O'Connor said after Moore had done well in the big win at the RDS over the French side. "If we feel that Mike's going to be the guy to do that, we'd have full confidence in him."
They didn't. Over the previous three seasons, Ross had started 19 of Leinster's 22 games in Europe. Suddenly, at 35 years of age, his future looked like it wouldn't extend as far as planned. Not great if you're the player concerned and no better if you're the national coach with a Six Nations around the corner and a World Cup down the road. Schmidt took a gamble and told Ross he was still in the frame.
"It's been a bit of a strange one," the prop says now. "Generally, you'd be struggling to keep your Irish place if you're not starting those two Heineken Cup games after Christmas, but Joe just kept a bit of faith in me and gave me an opportunity. But I had to take it. He will give you an opportunity, but if you don't take it, that's it. Sayonara. Luckily, I was able to do that against Italy and keep it up against France."
In fairness, he did pretty well. Leave aside his midfield tackle on Teddy Thomas last weekend - his team-mates suggested, unkindly, that he must have seen a Mars bar in the pocket of the rocket-like winger to make him reach so effectively - and focus instead on his performance at the scrum.
With Ross, the deal is that you get more out of him the more games he plays. More than smaller midfield backs, for example, he needs regular action to achieve and maintain fitness. So lay-offs are bad news. Yet he overcame one en route to the November series and survived.
"I hadn't played for about four to six weeks before playing the Springbok game and I managed to last 74 minutes there, so that was a good boost," he says. "At the same time, you're out, but you're also given a rest off contact - that's what takes it out of the body. You actually feel almost fresh coming into it even though you haven't had the game time.
"You can get through it and then what, 40-odd minutes against Georgia, and then 80 minutes against Australia, which I hadn't done for a year, so that was also a good boost. I knew if I got a good run against Italy, then I'd have the momentum."
Surely the effect of this - the lack of game time, then being dropped - is to having to prove yourself all over again?
"I'm around long enough and know what is required and I know the self-talk you need to get through it. But, also, I went and had a chat with Enda McNulty, who is a good resource to have around the place - unbelievably positive. Most of us would have (used him before). A lot of rugby is psychological, a lot of sport is psychological. We all know that. I mean, someone like Tiger Woods right now who is blowing up a bit and it's probably all just mental.
"He (McNulty) just reminded me to go back to the good games you have before, big plays or big scrums, good defensive efforts, things like that. He wants you to look at your greatest hits, in other words, and it does help. It reminds you that you've been there and done that. Despite what some people might say, you can do it when required."
And it's getting harder to do it. Part of the reason Ross was dropped by Leinster is that he is no dervish around the field. Constantly, he is under pressure to do more and while he would love the idea of, as he puts it, "parking up next to a ruck", it doesn't cut it anymore.
But the day job of nailing down the scrum is still a battle. One of the great weaknesses of the game is that such a central feature of it is virtually impossible to manage. Mike Ross would admit that against France, he got a couple of decisions that could easily have gone the other way. And that he was done a couple of times when another referee might have called it differently. The issue, however, is that the same referee could make that different call a few minutes later. Because frequently they haven't a rashers. So when Ross has his face in the dirt after another collapsed scrum and he hears the whistle, often he gets up wondering which way the ref is leaning.
"I think if you look at last year's Six Nations, most of our scrums stayed up. We had a decent scrum platform. You look this year and there seems to be more collapses and you ask yourself what has changed? I think the hit and chase is creeping back into it. Last year, they were still adjusting, so sometimes you're almost pre-engaged. Remove the hit and you seem to have a steadier scrum.
"Look at the game Ireland played against England, every scrum stayed up. Against France, there was two or three collapsed. Against Scotland, stayed up. Wales, there was a few collapses there. Maybe five scrums the whole game. And Italy, every scrum stayed up pretty much. If you allow the hit and chase in a scrummaging context, you give guys more motivation because suddenly a prop can see whether he has won or lost. They just need to police that a bit better."
And then there is the bloke he's playing against. When he was suffering at the hands of French referees in the Champions Cup this season, the other common denominator was Joe Marler, though it's worth noting that of the eight scrum penalties Leinster conceded in the Quins games, only one was directly attributable to that head-to-head contest. Jack McGrath was having as much difficulty with Will Collier as Ross was with Marler. Their paths would have crossed when an unreconstructed Ross was making his way in the world, in Harlequins, before arriving over to Leinster in 2009.
"Yeah he was in the Academy when I was there," he says of Marler. "I remember him - he was burning the ear off Ceri Jones, the loosehead prop, who I think taught him too well because he went and took his spot. So yeah, he's a pretty larger-than-life character. You see him with his haircuts: I remember him carving a sausage into the side of his head. That was actually for Ollie Kohn's business - the Jolly Hog."
Would it be fair to say that Marler comes across as a bit gobby?
"Yeah, he talks a lot. I'd be of the mind that if you're talking, you're obviously not putting enough breath into scrummaging. So, if you've time to chat . . ? But I've been watching the England scrum and they've been doing pretty well. Graham Rowntree's got them working hard as a unit.
"Most international packs will have a decent scrum. Japan did a job on Italy during the summer - I was watching back over those scrums, 'Jesus what's happened to Japan here, they're going really well!' I think with the demise of the big hit, it's got more technical. Before, if you got a good hit, you could cover up a lot of flaws in your technical scrummaging because you had that impetus and you had that momentum and it didn't really matter. Now you have to have your spines in line; you have to have a good profile; your have to have your knees at 120 degrees or otherwise it's going to be very tough for you to recover form that.
"To be honest, when it first came in (the reduced hit), I didn't like it very much, because I spent eight years with the hit and chase and suddenly you have to unlearn habits that you've spent a good while accumulating. It took a while to figure out. You could see an evolution during the season. First, guys were putting both feet back and then they went into a split stance and the split stance seems to have stayed. Soon, someone will find a new trick and other teams will copy it. I think we're still searching for the perfect recipe for the successful scrum."
So is Marty Moore. The relationship between Ross and Matt O'Connor, and Ross and Moore, inevitably has changed over the last couple of months. The veteran of 115 Leinster games and 46 Tests is now cornered, where not long ago he was only being pursued. So he won't be as generous with tidbits to his rival as he used to be.
"Yeah, I'm telling him s**t now," he says. "Look, that's life for you. It would be nice to think that I'll be first choice 'til I'm 40, but I'm going to keep going as long as I can and if he wants the place, he's going to have to take it. That's sport for you. I'm not going to bury my head in the sand. I'm going to make him fight for every last inch."
Whatever about Marty Moore, it sounds like a good starting point for Sunday. Alarm bells ringing.
Sunday Indo Sport