Ross believes rocky road to Rome well worth the effort
Published 03/02/2011 | 05:00
You ask him if it's been a long road. Mike Ross raises his eyebrows curiously. A long road? He knows he may as well have walked into the room with a polka-dotted bindle slung over his shoulder and a rutted piece of cardboard in his shoes where the soles should be.
A long road? "Yeah, it's been long enough, it has," he says softly, a 30-year-old finally taking his rightful place among the Six Nations of the northern hemisphere. "It's something I've worked very hard towards and I'm delighted that all that hard work has paid off. It's been a long time coming and I'm just glad it's happened now."
It need not have been this way. For all the decade-long hand-wringing in Irish rugby about life after John Hayes, it seems that the answer may have been under its collective nose for quite a while.
And even Declan Kidney took a while to sniff it out.
Ross's long and winding road, occasional cul-de-sacs and all, pour scorn on the theory that traditional routes are king in Irish rugby, a potent reminder as the schools rugby season gets into full swing.
Ross originally hails from Ballyhooly in north Cork, which nestles above the River Blackwater between Fermoy and Castletownroche, and is historically home to many of the county's protestants.
Ross was from farming stock, like so many of his peers in Irish rugby, and he was educated in St Colman's College, the Fermoy establishment more noted for churning out Harty Cup winners than Munster SCT champions.
Ross admits that he didn't have the skill for hurling, so he played underage with Fermoy RFC and from thence to UCC, where he both encountered a passion for biotechnology and a love for his future wife, an American named Kimberley.
His liking for rugby increased apace too. He formed part of the seminal European Student championship side along with Peter Stringer, Mick O'Driscoll and Jerry Flannery, winners in Belfield on the same January day in 1999 as Ulster won the European Cup.
He played with Cork Con for a few years and...er ... that was it. Munster sniffed, had a look. But Kidney said thanks, but no thanks. True, there was a pecking order.
John Hayes, Marcus Horan, Freddy Pucciariello, Denis Fogarty, Frank Roche, Eugene McGovern, Tim Ryan and Tony Buckley were ahead of him. His wife suggested a move to the States. Dean Richards' agent suggested a move to Harlequins.
It was a match made in heaven which ultimately ended on a sour note when former England international Richards was put in the stocks for his role in the 'Bloodgate' episode.
Still, four years pushing around the best props in England had advanced Ross' prowess -- if not his Irish career and he owed it all to Richards.
Kidney reappeared and brought him to the North America in Grand Slam year for his debut. Having been urged to return home, he bunked up at Leinster, but even CJ Van Der Linde and his dodgy toe were predominantly deemed superior by Michael Cheika.
Back to square one? Cue Joe Schmidt's arrival and a blank page. Well, a page with a few, short instructions. As we had gathered from those close to Kidney and Cheika, Ross wasn't that fond of doing much else apart from the aul' scrummaging. That had to change. "My scrummaging is something I've always relied on," he says. "But there are other aspects of the game that you have to be fully up to speed on, otherwise it will be a very difficult afternoon for you.
"I've worked on these weaknesses in my game and, hopefully, I'm at a level now where I can push on. Things like being quicker into defensive line, working harder off the ball, making more carries. I've progressed a good bit in that aspect. It's the way the game has gone, the game is a lot quicker. You had the kick tennis from a couple of seasons ago, and you could slow the ball down a lot more and you had time to get set in a defensive line.
"Now, a four or five-second ruck has become a three-second ruck so you have to be that bit quicker on your feet, getting set quicker and reacting better. The game has changed considerably since I turned professional."
Relatively unknown for so long -- it is still a considerable shock to recall he wasn't considered last November -- now suddenly Ross is being hailed as the saviour of Ireland's concertinaing scrum.
Correctly, he points out that it should be an eight-man effort, but the bar-stool punters won't see that. So, he just shrugs it off.
"It's what you'll you'll be judged on at the end and if you don't deliver. There is a bit of pressure. It is my first Six Nations start, of course there is pressure, but I have been given my chance now and I have to take it."
After all, what was the point in the journey? "There were some mornings I'd be getting up at 5.0, going into get the work done before heading off to play for Shannon. I'm 24 or 25 and wondering to myself was it ever going to happen for me."
At last he's pushed his way into the front-row. Well worth the wait.