Thursday 14 December 2017

Comment: Mike Ross - A career spent confounding the doubters

Not every coach valued Mike Ross, but his ability to lock a scrum earned him a lot of silverware

Rugby star Mike Ross at home with his children. Photo: Mark Condren
Rugby star Mike Ross at home with his children. Photo: Mark Condren
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Mike Ross knew from early in the week that, a few days after announcing his plan to retire at the end of the season, he would start for Leinster against Glasgow in the RDS. And then? Not quite sure.

Leinster hope to be involved for the next three weekends, but it's like he's standing by the door with his bag packed, wondering will a taxi or a team bus pull up. 

"That could have been my last start in a Leinster jersey," he says. "I was a bit emotional thinking about it during the week but I was trying to save it for the game. And if it was then it's all been immensely satisfying. It really has. I never thought I would have achieved this much, especially given the age I started at. To turn pro at 26, and the bulk of my caps coming after I was 31? I suppose to have been still playing Test rugby at 36 wasn't a bad thing by any standard."

Neither bad nor remotely foreseeable for a man who illustrated perfectly the distinction that rugby, even at the elite level, accommodates all shapes and sizes. Mike Ross was in the cruiser class.

When his dad Frank brought him along to the local Fermoy Rugby Club, Ross reckons that, at 11, he had a stone for every year. And he quickly understood that, unlike soccer or GAA, serious bulk could be a trump card. Now that he's wrapping up, some 26 years later, he has gone through a few changes in body shape, but the message remains the same. He may never have been portrayed in tights and cape, but Ross's ability to lock a scrum rescued a few hairy situations along the way.

Occasionally there were delusions of mobility. When he fetched up at UCC to start a science degree, he thought he would bring with him the skills he had employed when playing a bit at number eight for Fermoy. Sometimes thoughts are best unspoken. That was one of them. And, as a prop, he scuttled up through the ranks to the senior side, all on the back of serious strength and size.

"From you could carry a bucket, you were out around the farm," he says. "I suppose it does help. It gives you a good physical grounding at that stage. What helped me later as well was working on a building site for a summer. If you're carrying fire doors up seven or eight flights of stairs it kind of toughens you up fairly quickly."

Mike Ross's career has been unlikely, which has added colour to his exit. When he arrived at UCC he had neither formal coaching nor a schools career to sustain him; and when he graduated to Cork Con he was still playing catch-up in a few areas. The next step, to Munster, was sideways, though. A peripheral figure brought in to train, or trot out with the As when the stars were away, he never made the required impression with coach Declan Kidney.

Leo Cullen head coach of Leinster and Mike Ross during a press conference at the RDS Arena in Ballsbridge, Dublin. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Leo Cullen head coach of Leinster and Mike Ross during a press conference at the RDS Arena in Ballsbridge, Dublin. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

"Sometimes coaches focus on what you can't do rather than what you can," he says. "And maybe that's where I fell down with Deccie a bit. He did pick me in the end but I don't know if John Hayes was five years younger if that would have been the case."

So Ross, prompted by his old man, got an agent, who happened to be Dean Richards' agent. A trial for Harlequins came in April 2006. Two trials got him a three-month contract - just about. From there he hung in. A lot of his career has been about hanging in.

"Quins was a steep learning curve for me. I remember feeling absolutely bolloxed in the first Premiership game I played. I felt absolutely shattered at half-time and there was still 40 minutes to go? But I thrived on it. I knew it was the last chance saloon. Whatever I was told to do I did, and stuck to it even though it was bloody hard.

We had this fitness coach, a guy who at 18 apparently was the youngest ever Welsh drill sergeant, called Phil Richards, and he did a lot of army drills with us.

"He had something called the Leopard Crawl: you couldn't raise your arse off the ground; you had to have your knees always in contact with the ground and crawl the length of the pitch. And by the time you did that in the summer you had massive grazes all down the inside of your legs and elbows and your skin was gone. Then you'd wait two weeks until you were healed up and you'd do it again. It worked well with me. Gave me a good grounding."

They knocked 10kg off his frame in the first few months. By the time he had completed three seasons at the Stoop, he had played 84 games, looked more like a rugby player, and had established himself as a quality scrummaging tighthead. Michael Cheika came calling in 2009.

"It was a bit of gamble for me at the time because I remember meeting Cheika and going: 'You have CJ van der Linde there and Stan Wright so where do I fit in to this scenario?' Because at that time there was only one prop on the bench. He kind of hummed and hawed."

The gamble was working well enough until Leinster lost a fractious European game to London Irish. With things going badly and possession at a premium, the ball squirted out from a ruck and Ross, in an offside position, poked it in a reflex action.

Mike Ross starts for Leinster tonight in what will be one of his final games for the province. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Mike Ross starts for Leinster tonight in what will be one of his final games for the province. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

"I just made a stupid mistake," he says. "Cheika wasn't in too forgiving a mood after that, so I didn't really get a look-in from then on. I still played a bit, but when it came to the big games I was nowhere to be seen.

"He was tough to deal with. If he loved you, you were fine; if he didn't, good luck. So, that kind of binary nature. I kind of blotted my copybook with that but even then I was thinking had I made a terrible mistake (coming) here? I was thinking I should get out, because I'd been playing every week over in the Premiership and now it's playing 20 minutes here, 30 minutes there."

The Heineken Cup semi-finals confirmed his status as solely an emergency option. On a wet day in the south of France, Toulouse were horsing Leinster out of it at the scrum. This was something Ross could improve. Off came Cian Healy, on went Van der Linde; then Wright came off and Healy was back on before, with the stewards in their end-of-match positions, Ross was sprung for all of five minutes. You wonder, when Cheika calmed down a bit, did he learn something from that bit of human trafficking?

"Maybe, but it was too late to apply to me. I knew that Joe Schmidt was coming in so I thought: 'I might as well see what happens here, and sure I can always go elsewhere if it doesn't work out'. Then at the start of the season he (Schmidt) asks: 'So what do you bring to the team; what have you got for me? And I said: 'Well I can lock the scrum better than anyone else in the club.' And he says: 'Well that's not going to be enough. It's a good start but it's not going to be enough. I need you to do X, Y and Z.

"Everyone says now he's so demanding but he was so quiet and unassuming after Cheika we thought he wasn't tough enough! Little were we to know. Just because he's not kicking stuff around the dressing-room doesn't mean he's not like an assassin.

"I remember we were sitting down doing a video review and he pointed to a try conceded and goes: 'Mike that's your man!' And I was looking at him going: 'That's a winger, how is that my man?' And he said: 'Well if we replay the video here you're next to him, and he goes on to take a pass, and if you'd run a little bit quicker, earlier, you could have got him when he took the pass.' That kind of gives you insight into how his mind works: he doesn't expect you to be a superstar, but he expects you to work hard at all times. And if he thinks you're taking shortcuts he's going to come down on you like a ton of bricks. "

Under Schmidt, Ross picked up back-to-back Six Nations titles, as well as five trophies with Leinster between Schmidt and Matt O'Connor. Those two coaches saw Ross in a different light: Schmidt coursed him about the place but put huge store on his scrummaging value; O'Connor was more focused on the coursing.

The caps and the cups all combine to give him great memories. The less memorable stuff centres on two days, some 12 months apart. The second one came with the announcement of the Lions squad to tour Australia in 2013. He was watching the press conference on tv, with his mother. When Matt Stevens's name - he had retired from Test rugby - was read out he nearly keeled over.

The other had come the previous March, in Twickenham. Ireland were being shunted badly at the scrum when Ross went off with a neck injury, bringing Tom Court off the bench. It all fell apart.

"I didn't anticipate that happening," he says. "My neck got crunched in the first scrum. It got progressively worse and I couldn't turn my head. I have a bulging disc in there to this day. That originated from that.

Tom had gone well during the week and I figured he had to be a better option with two shoulders than me with one. I felt fairly bad about that. Should I have kept going? Should I have stuck it out? But like I say, I couldn't turn my head to look at the after-match dinner."

Ross's opponent that day, Alex Corbisiero, was a powerful scrummager but the man who stands out as most problematic was South Africa's Beast, Tendai Mtawarira, followed by France's Thomas Domingo. The scrum, according to Ross, is like a suspension bridge: it takes one pushing up and one pushing down to make it work. And he has been generous in explaining its dynamics to those coming behind him.

"When I came in to the Academy I was so far behind Rossy he wouldn't have looked on me as a rival - I had a long way to go on that journey," Tadhg Furlong says. "But as a front rower, it just happens in squads that you're all drawn in together. I don't know, maybe it's because of the scrum, but outside of that we're all pretty similar personalities. I wasn't best friends with him in year one and two but from the point of view of pulling me aside he was perfect: a mentor really. As the years went on and I got to know him a bit better and outside of the squad we could talk about non-rugby stuff. He's just a good bloke."

It's been noticeable how many share the same view. And that will stand to him in the afterlife, which will kick off soon enough. Rather than take a long holiday he'll get straight into his new career as commercial director in a software company. A techie to the core, he likes the product and the people; he likes where he lives in a sizeable house in Rathgar with his missus and two kids; he likes the way his life has turned out.

The next few weeks may make it even better.

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