Friday 23 March 2018

Fate intervenes to provide Ross with some gainful employment

The Bull has yet to be replaced but Ireland have stumbled upon a dependable scrum, says Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

A bloke goes to the local council to apply for a job in the office. The interviewer asks him, "Are you allergic to anything?"

He replies, "yes, caffeine."

"Have you ever worked for the public service before?"

"Yes, I was in the army," he says, "I was in Iraq for two tours."

The interviewer says, "That will give you five extra points toward employment."

Then he asks, "Are you disabled in any way?"

The guy says, "Yes, a mine exploded near me when I was there and I lost both of my testicles."

The interviewer grimaces and then says, "Okay, you've got enough points for me to take you on right away. Our normal hours are from 8am to 4pm . . . but you can start tomorrow at 10am, and carry on starting at 10am every day."

The bloke is puzzled and asks, "If the work hours are from 8am to 4pm, why don't you want me here until 10am? I'm not looking for any special treatment."

"What you have to understand is that this is a council job," the interviewer says, "for the first two hours, we just stand around drinking coffee and scratching our bollocks. There's no point in you coming in for that."

W hat we are looking for is work-rate and industry. No question I suffered on the work-rate front -- in the modern game, I'd have had to have productivity clauses in my contract to achieve the required balance.

I think we have to give credit before we start. Donncha O'Callaghan came under pressure in this campaign -- I had a pop as well. There is no question that he is a talented player and his industry quotient is faultless, but to post 60 tackles in five games and lead the team in this department from the front five is absolute quality. You would allow him the one missed tackle. It's an exceptional work-rate -- work to rule of a different dimension.

There were other players with higher tackle counts in the 50s and late 40s -- but for unwavering excellence David Wallace's 45 and none missed again was prodigious. Add in six turnovers from ripping the ball from the tackled player and you have a sense of the work ethic in this side. Bravo.

The great thing about team sports and the group dynamic is the holistic approach. Everybody has to tackle across the line, everyone has to chase, close down space, and do the simple things that benefit the team. Every now and again there is compromise. This season Ireland had to make a call and compromise and, without having much choice in the matter, it paid off. They managed it well. It's still a work in progress.

During the international window in November, Leinster played two Magners League matches, against the Dragons and the Ospreys. At the start of the season, Stan Wright tore his Achilles tendon. That was bad news as CJ van der Once-A-Month had just gone home after cramming 12 matches into three seasons. Leinster went north for Ben Prescott and south for Clint Newland. If your name is Clint, you just gotta be good. Clint won the Al Baxter Crap Scrummagers of The Year award 10 years straight. Clint Eastwood starred in a movie called Every Which Way But Loose which described the Kiwi prop's playing ability. The orangutan who starred in the movie with Eastwood was a better scrummager than Newland. That farce is over now but the point that has to be made is that the guy who was covering for Newland on the bench on both occasions was Mike Ross. Probable cause for packing in your rugby career.

Leinster hadn't really been giving him any game time in the first season and a half -- nor it seemed had they spent the requisite time that had been spent on Stan Wright chiselling him into something igneous. I remember Stan Wright's first game for Leinster -- the rolls of sweat looked like fudge on a sundae. Why weren't Leinster spending the same time on Ross? Look at the dividends reaped from the loving time, care and repetitions expertise. I remember watching Ross play his first cap in the United States. I've said it before, it looked like he had been poured into his uniform and somebody had forgotten to say 'when'.

The guy who played against England last Saturday was a different dimension body shape. A long way short of what was across the other side of his scrum in Cian Healy's body shape, but a significant improvement on what we've seen.

Gert Smal managed to squeeze out "he's a good scrummager and he has worked on his general play." An endorsement? Sounds like my school reports, Neil must work harder -- an awful lot Jayzus harder. The fact is that Ireland and Leinster had no intention of picking him. But events conspired and pragmatism and compromise did not seem incompatible when the yawning chasm of a Fukushima-type scrum entered the consciousness of Ireland's management when it became obvious we had no platform in the tight.

Tony Buckley, outstanding against New Zealand in the summer, abysmal against South Africa in the autumn for the time he was on the pitch. It was John Hayes or Tom Court who interchanged -- none convincingly.

The Bull has been led off to the meadow. When he dies they will make Bovril out of him. Such was Hayes' legend, and I am speaking in the past tense, that it seems like an Arthurian scenario where only one who has royal blood can draw the sword from the stone. No one currently is fit to wear his jersey.

The reason is simple. Hayes (pictured) had a desire and an honesty of purpose which translated onto the pitch into an extraordinary work ethic. It can be encapsulated in a match against England six or seven seasons ago. Hayes made 17 tackles, carried seven times in addition to sticking the scrum and making Paul O'Connell look like Han Solo. When they use the term 'the incomparable John Hayes', it is used advisedly: 17 tackles!

Smal and Kidney knew that work practices from the new tighthead weren't going to measure up. They didn't. Ross made 25 tackles in five games and carried for 22 metres in the championship. Tightheads the world over being always the 'stronger prop' spend more time in the tight. Fine when it's a scrum-fest, but there were unbelievably only five scrums in the entire 80 minutes in Cardiff (there were 33 lineouts). Is the trade-off worth it? Probably.

Ross has this facility to tuck his right shoulder tight to his opponent and at the same time being square and giving his second row ample buttock to work behind. Very often a tighthead might have his opponent where he wants him but the way his arse is positioned might mean that his second row can't get 100 per cent of his weight and thrust behind him and the scrum as a whole might not be as solid as it should be, or might not be able to put forward pressure on. Ross ticks all the boxes. It means the team can plan. We can think about scoring off scrum ball again. It means Kidney and Smal get to sleep at night and the quid pro quo reduces as they belatedly get to work on Ross's body shape and his tackle count.

Soon he will be starting work at 8.0am because he has to.

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