Sunday 17 December 2017

Ross confident of big performance against 'Tiny' scrum rival

David Kelly

David Kelly

Mike Ross has had an eye on him for quite a while. They call him "Tiny" but in reality you can't miss him.

Soane Tonga'uiha will be Ross' direct opponent this weekend in the Heineken Cup final front-row mash-up; all 6ft 3in and 20st of Tongan rare beef, whose destruction of Munster-bound Springbok BJ Botha and French expert Nicolas Mas dominated Northampton's progress throughout the knockout stages.

And while much of the attention ahead of the Cardiff showdown will focus on the fancier operators, the front-row workhorses will play a crucial role in securing the prized possession required to eke out what are traditionally the tightest of Heineken Cup final margins.

Dedicated and self-styled scrum nerd Ross knows Tonga'uiha from a previous life with Harlequins; but the man mountain with the devastating step and burst of pace, whose rugby travels brought him to the midlands via Auckland and Bedford, is quite a different prospect to the player Ross once knew.

"He was there (England) when I was there and I faced him a number of times," recalls the Corkman. "He was very good around the pitch even then and he was probably not seen as one of the best scrummagers around. But that's certainly not something that's been said about him now.

"He's improved a huge amount since I last played against him and I don't anticipate him being the same guy. I played against him a couple of times and I was able to deal with him. I won't say handily, but I was able to cope.

"A couple of seasons ago, we got a penalty try against them but we didn't have (Brian) Mujati and (Dylan) Hartley against us, so they had a completely different scrummaging set-up. That won't be an issue this year from what I've seen of it."

Ross had his feet up watching the Saints' abrasive Premiership semi-final against Leicester last weekend but had the pen and pad beside him nonetheless.

"I did look at it with half an eye from the couch. They've done what they've been doing all year. But in fairness to Leicester, they dealt well with it. But certainly, they had that five-yard scrum that Northampton turned over.

"So you have to be on top of your game against them and you can't allow them to get a sniff. We've been looking at the Northampton scrum all year because I've had half an idea that we might be meeting them if we both got to the final.

"They've got two excellent props and in Hartley a hooker who they can tuck in under and trundle forward, and it can be hard to stop at times.

"Their second-rows have very good timing, they all push as one and there's a good deal of pressure from the back of the scrum."

Leinster will apply their own. Their Heineken Cup final triumph in 2009 was backboned by a stout scrum, as Ross discovered to his cost when his then Harlequins side succumbed in the infamous 'Bloodgate' quarter-final.

Another win beckons and Ross, who attended the 2002 final as a Munster fan, bears the weight of Leinster expectations on his broad shoulders, mercifully free from injury after shrugging off a stinger sustained last Friday against Ulster.

"I appreciate the buzz now, I know how much it means to the fans. But if it means that much to the fans, it means 10 times as much to the players because our season comes down to this," he says.

"All the hard work and the graft that we started back in June comes down to this. At the end of this, we could have our reward or have nothing. It's the way of professional sport.

"As a trio, performing well and getting the edge is a huge motivation for us. Nobody wants to go out there and be embarrassed. So we have to get our own house in order and focus on that.

"But we haven't exactly come through an easy examination to date, Clermont and Racing in our group, then Toulouse and Leicester. It hasn't been an easy road we've travelled."

And that makes the destination all the more alluring.

Irish Independent

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