Wednesday 25 April 2018

Comment: While Munster had the Bull, Leinster had the bear to shoulder every burden


David Kelly

David Kelly

If it can be said that Munster housed a bull when they conquered Europe, well then Leinster accommodated the most fearsome of front-row bears.

In many ways, like the peripatetic John Hayes, who was sent to New Zealand as a second-row and returned to begin a decade-long residence propping up successful red- and green-clad teams, Mike Ross was an accidental success.

One that did not ignite until shortly before he entered his fourth decade. Persistence marked him.

Ironically, he would have to leave Munster to forge his particular career, re-emerging in full glare of everyone, it seemed, at Harlequins. That is, everyone except those whom he had left behind.

When Munster were preparing his release papers, Ross and his new American wife, Kimberlee, were contemplating their own release papers in the form of a green card. Even when eventually repatriated by an Australian coach at Leinster, Michael Cheika, he was not immediately selected for the province. Neither did he become an instant choice for the national selectors.

How different the landscape of Irish rugby may have been then? Ireland's Twickenham implosion in 2012 offered a glimpse.

Mercifully, aided by the stubborn persistence of a hardy, hearty son of Fermoy, Ross bided his indecent, but brief, exclusions from both sides before establishing himself as the natural successor to Hayes with Ireland, as well as the fulcrum of a Leinster side who would dominate Europe like no other.

From 2009 until 2017, he would be nigh on undroppable for both Leinster and Ireland.

His medal haul neatly coincides with the rise of Ireland and Leinster to European dominance - two Six Nations titles, three European trophies and two Guinness Pro12s.

Talk about making up for lost time. And yet he never appeared to be greedily accomplishing as if in any rush. His was a steadily concentrated endeavour, technically proficient and masterly in its control and authority.

Dean Richards saved his career and so he stooped to conquer at The Stoop; thoughts of venturing Stateside cast aside for now.

But Ross was always off the beaten track in some way; hailing from Ballyhooly, in north Cork, he schooled in Fermoy, where hurling had its grasp, if not on Ross himself.

He remained a rugby outsider in the days when rugby rarely peered beyond its parochial walls.

He played just once, from the bench, in four years with Munster despite making steady road at Cork Con.

Yet in three seasons at 'Quins, he played 76 times and was named on the team of the season; the IRFU's blatant ignorance of anything beyond passport control blinded them to his existence.

When he finally returned to Irish shores, he was more or less ignored all over again; Cheika preferring CJ van der Linde until Joe Schmidt had other ideas.

From the moment Schmidt arrived, in 2010, the number three was an automatic pick; Jonathan Sexton's work with the ball engineered a famous 2011 comeback European final win. The scrum geek on a laptop in a final arguably played as much a part as the out-half's rousing speech.

Ross knew the end was nigh when Schmidt dropped him for the first time ever last year.

Indeed, his international retirement had already been announced, quietly, when Schmidt phoned Ross last summer to tell him he was exploring other options.

For someone who plied his trade as an almost endangered species, Irish rugby was remarkably cavalier in ignoring his potential.

It would benefit hugely when finally it did.

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