Mike Ross determined to 'prop until he stops' for Schmidt
Despite being dropped by Matt O'Connor at Leinster, Ireland ever-present has retained place for Italian job
SOME folk reckon that paranoia is less a fear of the unknown than its polar opposite.
Rather than being afraid of what the unknown can inflict, it is precisely the knowledge of what damage the familiar can cause which may invoke such fears. This is why so many seek comfort and security.
So when you ask Joe Schmidt whether he seeks comfort in the selection of Mike Ross, a player dropped for Leinster and so recently unworthy of a two-year IRFU contract, yet who has always started for the Kiwi with Ireland, a familiar smile curls the edges of his lips.
"I don't think anyone ever gives me comfort," he says. "I'm paranoid; I often deal in worst-case scenarios."
Confidence is contagious, he had told us earlier. So, too, is courage. The tighthead is the security upon which a scrum, an entire team, can build confidence and courage.
In Ross, Schmidt has always derived such solace even as some supporters, not alone the Leinster head coach, may have misplaced theirs of late.
"The best-case scenario Mike gives us is solidity in that scrum and it's something he has demonstrated he is capable of doing, particularly in a green jersey in recent times," advances Schmidt.
"I know he was well underdone before the autumn and I thought he hung in really well. So he came through that.
"I do think that Marty Moore and Nathan White have done some really good work even in camp here at the couple of scrum sessions we've managed to squeeze in. So it is a little bit of an unknown but for us Mike has delivered in the past. He delivered last Six Nations and we're hopeful he'll deliver again."
There is an imperceptible caution here with the mention of the "unknown"; it is as if Schmidt himself is speaking out loud and addressing the doubts.
And these are doubts that only the player himself can adequately address. If Ross is deemed a secure option by his coach, now he must respond in kind.
"It is a good confidence booster" the 35-year-old readily concedes. "With Joe I have a bit of credit in the bank with him. I have a loan of the jersey for this week and I have to pay it back and see if I can get it again the following week.
"I don't think there's any more pressure than there usually would be. Any time you put on the green jersey, you have to deliver. This will be no different.
"It's good to hear, you know, that you're still in his mind, his thoughts but, at the same time, you have to perform if given an opportunity."
Even if Matt O'Connor mitigated the Corkman's de-selection by pointing an indirect finger at Jerome Garces, he was still dropped for both European games, not just the one whistled by the Frenchman.
Added to his presumed frustration at only being offered a one-year deal rather than the two-year extension he had clearly hankered for, and the timing may not have seemed more inappropriate for the ever-present Schmidt selection.
"Look, it was pretty tough to take at the time," he admits. "I was rested for the game against Cardiff and the boys did really well in that and Matt decided to keep that in situ. It was a bit of a strange one for me watching it. The only thing I could do was knuckle down, work on the bits of my game.
"Some referees interpret you a bit better than others. I'd had Garces before without a problem. Matt probably thought he didn't want to risk any other calls going against me in the Harlequins game."
Schmidt gave Ross a pep talk on the phone to encourage the player that he remained in the frame; he clearly felt his confidence was knocked but when directly challenged on this, he neatly sidesteps.
"I don't really talk to front-rows that much if I'm honest," he deadpans. "I'm a little bit intimidated by them.
"Really, he gets his confidence through the certainty that he gets from the scrum sessions. Greg Feek's (scrum coach) relationship with him builds a bit of confidence for him .
"To be honest, it is a bit of a dark corner of the game that I'm not an expert in. The one thing I would say is that you can't fault Mike Ross in the way that he is such a personable guy.
"He is fully committed to this game and if there was to be any comfort it would be in that. That I know he'll be utterly committed to the task at hand."
Ross has been here before, of course; released by Munster, reborn in England and then repatriated to Leinster for an initial, unsettling period out in the cold under Michael Cheika.
It is more than a decade since he contemplated emigrating to the US; and so a lifetime of experience softens any edge.
"I realise that I'm very lucky to be playing rugby in the first place," he says. "I still have a contract. I'm still a professional rugby player - just make the most of it, make the most of the hand you've been given.
"Being out of the Leinster squad after being in it for five years or so was a challenge. It's one you just have to knuckle down and work harder to get your place back.
"As your career goes on the experience you gain from it grows. It's not the first time I've been dropped. That happened at me when I started out at Leinster with Cheika and I came back from that. You know it is not going to go on forever but you need to make the most of the opportunities you get. And enjoy it too. Rugby is ultimately only a 10-15-year period of your life and you really have to make the most of it."
He aims to prop until he stops; some suspect that may be sooner rather than later, hence a certain reluctance amongst some supporters to wholly endorse his candidacy ahead of Marty Moore.
Ross can only control his sphere of influence which, on Schmidt's watch, is all that matters in this moment.
"Of course I'm going to say this but age is just a number," he says.
"As long as you are happy with how you're performing on the pitch and in the gym you can keep going.
"You look at Brad Thorn, he is 40 and yet he is still going strong and a bloody legend at Leicester," he adds. "He's looked after himself pretty well over the years and he is an icon you can look at and think it can be done.
"Now, I'm not saying I'm going to keep going until I'm 40 but as long as I am performing well and enjoying it I'll see how long I can hang on for."