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Master of Dark Arts


Mike Ross. Picture: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Mike Ross. Picture: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Mike Ross. Picture: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Email, August 11, 2003.

Hi guys,

'Don't know if you remember me or not, I played for you two years ago (big out of shape prop, played for UCC) ...

Above is the beginning of an email from a 23-year-old club rugby player, looking to reunite with friends he had made while playing for Boston Irish Wolfhounds two years earlier.

"I was just playing with UCC in 2001. I had no connection to Munster. I had no clue about conditioning or nutrition or anything like that. I was probably two or three stones overweight," said Mike Ross.

"After we won the European Universities Cup against Grenoble in 1999, we were paraded on the pitch during the half-time of Ulster's Heineken Cup final win over Colomiers.

"That was the closest I got to professional rugby."

Or so he thought.

"I wanted to spend a summer in the States two years before I wrote that email. I had just met my then girlfriend Kimberly, now my wife, in college. She is from Connecticut.

"Props settle down early. We don't get better looking with age," relayed Ireland tight-head Mike Ross.

Since then, the Rosses have brought their son Kevin into the world. The two-year-old is already rugby obsessed: "He asked me for two Brian O'Driscolls and Jonny Sextons for Christmas. Two of them, two Brians, two Jonnys.

"I honestly don't know what he means. I may have to knock Jonny over the head, box-wrap him and stick him under the tree."

When once upon a time O'Driscoll and Sexton would have been men out of his reach, Ross now shares the same international stresses, trials, tribulations and elations.

But the journey of this farmer's son of St Colman's College, in Fermoy, was certainly a road less travelled, one made out of sweat and grinding work to become Ireland's cornerstone.

He would not have entered into professional rugby were it not for the grace of good fortune. And former Connacht forwards coach John Kingston. And the infamous Dean Richards.

"How it came about was I got an agent, Justin Page. He was also Deano's agent. Justin asked him to have a look at me. I went over for two trial games with their A team in May 2006.

"You remember the dates of these things. I did well enough. They offered me a three-month trial."

It is difficult to believe that such a big fish could almost slip through the net in such a small pool of players.

"Some guys just mature later than others, you know," he said.

"It is something we probably could do better in. We have the AIL. But, for some lads, if they don't make an academy, they just knock it in the head."

Ross was seen as a slow-burning project by Kingston, still Conor O'Shea's right-hand-man at Harlequins. He turned out to be the long-term solution to Ireland's problems.

The self-confessed scrum nerd has always been fascinated by the 'dark arts' of the front row: "It is basic physics at the end of the day, isn't it?

"More precisely, it is the application of physics. It is how little things matter in a scrum. It could be whether you go into an engagement and your quads are 90 degrees to the ground or 120 degrees. It could make the difference between doing well or not.

"It could be your foot placement. If one foot is ahead of the other, they'll turn you inside which allows the loose-head the angle to get in under you. That's all it takes.

"The law changes are worse for the tight-head. A lot of us are struggling with the new rules.

"We are in the process of figuring out what works and what doesn't.

"They have taken away a big weapon in a tight-head's armoury. That was the ability to knock the loose-head down on the engagement and power through.

"Now, you have to settle in and it is more of a wrestle. It has completely changed the dynamics of the scrum. The hit and chase is gone, if you relied on that.

"I was watching Dan Cole finding it difficult for Leicester against Bath. A couple of weeks later, he's got it. I'm learning quickly too. I have to."

The new scrum has also turned club and international teammate Cian Healy from a troublesome opponent into "an absolute nightmare".

"Before, with Cian, you might have a hope against him if you knock him down and beat him with momentum. He is a really explosive athlete.

"Now, he can just settle in there, get into a position. And boom! He explodes.

"The other thing is he can come back up from ridiculously bad starting positions. The kid is a bit of a freak."

Where once Ross had to rely on the pressure he put on himself to perform, there are now others making their mark, none more so than Martin Moore, called into the Ireland squad this week.

"Yeah, well, the rules do tend to suit the shorter props," he said.

"At the same time, if you can get low and get your body in the correct position, it can suit you too. I am not exactly 6'4" or anything like that. In fact, I have actually shrunk since I started playing. Seriously!

"I used to be 188 centimetres or 6'2".

"Now, I measure 186 centimetres. It must be sheer compression, I would say, when you think about the force coming through your spine from both ends of it."



What about the health risks?

"If I was doing it until I was 60, I could see the possibility of long-term damage. I came to the game late.

"I was only telling Jack McGrath at training the other day that I am the rugby version of 'a classic car with low mileage'."

He plans to keep the engine running, at least as far as the 2015 World Cup, when he will be 35 years young and "see where I am after that".

The Irish Rugby Football Union has pledged an allegiance to the development of home-grown scrum coaches to remedy the shortage of international-class props in Ireland.

Here is a man with the experience, the knowledge and the fascination to become the Director of the 'Darkest Art'.

Mike Ross was speaking at the Irish preview of Battlefield 4, available to pre-order now and on general sale from November 1 on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.