Escaping his tight corner
Mike Ross is finally reaping the rewards of his patience and perseverance, writes Brendan Fanning
A week after Leinster's infamous win at the Stoop in 2009, Mike Ross and his Harlequins team-mates had to drag themselves north to Sale for a league fixture which demanded their full attention. Unlike their victors, most of whom had been given the next week off, the bulk of the Quins side had to go straight back to work.
Edgeley Park in Stockport is not the most attractive venue on the Premiership circuit and as the season wears on, the pitch, like the weather, drains the life from your legs. The away team were in no condition for this one, least of all their tighthead prop who was up against Andrew Sheridan, one of the most powerful men in world rugby. By the time it was over, Ross would be bent completely out of shape.
"Sale were in a foul old mood at the time," he remembers. "And they had a massive pack. Nothing I was doing against him was working, and I was just getting pinged left, right and centre. That was probably the last time. And it's a long, long day when that happens."
The interesting thing is not that Mike Ross was contorted and abused and generally coursed about the place but that he is prepared to admit it. Props would sooner come clean about a social disease than concede there is a weakness in their scrummaging. He is happy enough to laugh about the days that went south, and paints a picture for us about why props only look in the other direction.
"It's a mindset thing," he says. "Especially in the front row because it's so confrontational. You're going to work so you have to flick your mind over. You're on the clock. Time to put in a decent shift. You can't really have a bluffer in the front row, can you? You'll get found out pretty quickly. It's the one area in rugby where it's direct confrontation at its rawest: you go forward or you go backwards, and that's it. There's no way out of it. You enjoy that. Especially if you've done your homework on the lad and you know what's going to make him uncomfortable, and you go and you execute that strategy and it works. There's a bit of cerebral satisfaction from that too."
And when you throw your best shot early doors only to find it's like a bug bouncing off a windscreen?
"Oh shit! Time for Plan B!"
Ross was further down the alphabet that day in lovely Stockport. We don't know if on his travels from junior rugby in Fermoy to Test rugby with Ireland, he has ever arrived at Z, but given the potential for pain in that position, he probably has. And it's a certainty that off the field he has been lost for words too. Central to the Mike Ross story is the amount of time he has spent on the outside, and how he has dealt with it.
If you take the leaving of Munster as the start of his professional life -- he had only been training with them while playing with Con -- then it was a very promising start. Over to Harlequins on a trial basis, and three months later a deal was on the table. That was summer 2006. When Michael Cheika came courting three years later, Ross had played 78 times for the club. He was a work in progress but just before he left forwards coach John Kingston had described his potential as "frightening". The scary bit however was how bad the Leinster move looked not long after he had made it.
"At the same time I knew CJ (van der Linde) and Stan (Wright) were over there too so I was thinking where would I get my game time here? It was going to be really difficult -- I wasn't going to be playing week in, week out like I was for Quins. So it was a bit of a gamble, but at the same time CJ was struggling massively with injury to so I thought there was a chance there, that he mightn't come back from that. It was a calculated risk. And I can't say it really paid off for me the following season. It was probably the worst professional season I've had really, from a personal point of view."
In effect, he was a spectator on the days when it really mattered: Heineken Cup. The advent that season of the 23-man squad served only to highlight his distance from the heart of things. Had it been a 25-man squad then he would have come somewhere after 24. The campaign ended in a downpour in Toulouse and it was nothing short of humiliating for Ross. Not because he was the anchor in a Leinster scrum being tossed about like a cork at high tide, rather because he was watching it. He was the fourth of four props to be used that day. You could say he was actually the fifth because Cian Healy was used twice before eventually Cheika turned to Ross and told him to get on the field. There were five minutes left. Why was he there when surely this was a job he could do?
"That was my thought too at the time," he says. "What was the point in me being there if you're not going to use me? He had his reasons I suppose. I mean, the thing about Toulouse is that Servat, their hooker, he makes a really huge, huge difference to their scrum. When I played then against France (this season) I couldn't believe it: I'd just about have Domingo (sorted) and then this monster was coming through from the other side. Toulouse was the low point for me but at the same time I knew that the season was nearly over and it had been flagged long ago that Cheika was going, so there was going to be a new coach and a new opportunity.
"And it didn't harm me that Stan then did his Achilles so I got a run of games at last. That was good. Not so good for Stan and I'm good friends with him -- he's a great guy. But it gave me the opportunity to justify myself. I mean you don't play rugby to train. Everyone plays rugby to play rugby, not doing all the stuff that goes with being a sub. I look at guys who have to do it week in, week out and I had pretty much a year of it and it can be soul-destroying at times."
There was extra pressure, framed by guilt. Ross's wife Kimberlee is a medical scientist who abandoned a good job in Guys and St Thomas Hospital in London to support her husband in his decision to move to Dublin. She reasoned that her career in a white coat will be longer than his in white shorts, so get on with it. It didn't help though that work for her in Dublin was, for a long time, impossible to find. Or that her husband was deeply unhappy with the work he found, which turned out to be not really a job at all. And then she suffered a miscarriage.
Ross remembers it as a very difficult time for both of them, and is massively relieved that it's in the past. Just over a month ago, Kimberlee gave birth to Kevin James, their first child. "A game changer," Ross says of his new son. And of his wife, whom he says he had "dragged over" from the States in the first place?
"I owe her a huge amount. At the same time a lot of the lads who have success will have a wife standing behind them. You have to have a very understanding wife if you're going. 'We're moving tomorrow'. And she's: 'Well, I've got a career'. And you're there: 'We're going'. And she said okay! My poor missus went through the mill. But she's coping. Just about."
Ross signed a two-year extension with Leinster last week just as Wright is packing his bags for Paris. The turnaround in his rugby career started with Joe Schmidt replacing Cheika last year. Then the arrival of Greg Feek on the coaching staff was an extra bonus, for overnight the prop had a kindred spirit who could burn the midnight oil talking about impacts and angles and ways to destabilise your opposite number. So with Stan Wright injured and out of the picture, Ross stepped in, and immediately reinforced the idea that here was a man who could excel in an area that was causing acute concern at provincial and national level. True, he wasn't nifty around the park and for a man of his size he is not a devastating carrier. But he can scrummage. And rugby needs men like that.
As recently as last autumn, however, it seemed that Ireland were not in this category. It was staggering that Declan Kidney's team could go through a uniquely heavy workload at that time of year without calling for one minute on the man best equipped to steady the scrum. The awkward bit was that Ross was in camp all the time, looking like an extension of Feek who had been called up to help the Ireland scrum. So, good enough to be a scrum doctor's assistant but not good enough to get a run? "It was pretty frustrating but at the same time there's no point in sitting in the corner and sulking over it," he says. "You have to take whatever opportunity you can get."
But you weren't getting any?
"I knew if I was patient I'd get a chance. Unfortunately, it didn't happen for me in the autumn series but I got a good run at it in the Six Nations. These things balance out. A few guys got injured and I got an opportunity and then in the first game against Italy I wasn't massively happy with the way the scrums went at all. I thought I got pinged harshly and unfairly in a few of them but at the same time you've got to deal with what comes your way. I was just glad I got the second opportunity after that."
After that Italy game there was a fear that the scrum doctor was about to be struck off. Having been called in on an emergency, he arrived at the wrong address. So long Mike.
"Yeah, there was definitely that worry in the back of my head that that could happen. When you've a reputation for anything, whether it's a goal kicker or a scrummager, and if you're not slotting your goals or hitting your man in the lineout or the scrum's not going well, and if that's the foremost strength of your game, definitely there's an opportunity there for it to backfire on you.
"The scrum against Italy was so-so. And we barely scraped the win. I mean we could have been the first Irish team to lose to Italy in the Six Nations and that wasn't something I particularly wanted on my cv. I think everyone was buying Rog drinks that night. And we gave away six or seven penalties in the scrum. But at the same time the Italians went for a pushover seven or eight yards out and I think that was a real test of us. It was also pretty bloody cheeky (of them) but we were happy to keep them out. Eight yards out? It was nearly 10 yards and they were saying 'right we're going to push you over from here?' We really needed to stand up and we did."
He has got stronger since then, culminating with the dominance of an England pack who came to Dublin thinking their scrum was a stick they could wave around the place. The sight of him last weekend, roaring in exhilaration after that first advancing set-piece, was special. It would have been perfect if his opponent had been Andrew Sheridan instead of Alex Corbisiero. Or maybe not. Ross -- who loves his technology -- has a file on just about any opponent who could come his way, and he plays every game mindful that he might have missed something. It's a healthy paranoia developed from the attention he has got in the Championship.
"If you put yourself out there it's going to happen," he says. "Let me put it like this: they wouldn't have been going for me if I hadn't been playing (well) -- it would have been: 'this fella Ross, who's he?' They'll have more video on me and I'm sure they'll try and look for weaknesses. But it happens every week. It goes with the territory."
And it's familiar ground for the 31-year-old now. So familiar that he must be getting stopped in the street? "You get the odd fella saying hello to you in Dundrum shopping centre. But I wear the scrum cap -- so people wouldn't recognise me."
He walks around Dundrum Town Centre with a scrum cap on? "No, not in the Shopping Centre! I'm realistic: I'm never going to be a Brian O'Driscoll, getting stopped everywhere I go. Which I'm thankful for."
Give it time Mr Ross, give it time.
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