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'Life in the scrum was seen as a test of manhood'

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Ireland's Mike Ross during squad training

Ireland's Mike Ross during squad training

Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Mike Ross gives fellow prop Cian Healy a lift during training at Carton House this week in preparation for today’s clash with England sportsfile

Mike Ross gives fellow prop Cian Healy a lift during training at Carton House this week in preparation for today’s clash with England sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

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Ireland's Mike Ross during squad training

There can be little doubt that the fields of England helped mould Mike Ross into the man he is today.

As the team bus winds its way to Twickenham this afternoon, the Corkman will look out the window and recognise the local landmarks. As he says, "I know the neighbourhood pretty well."

When he arrived on Thursday, the Leinster tighthead caught up with some former team-mates, most retired. Today, he will come face to face with four more: Danny Care, Chris Robshaw, Mike Brown and Joe Marler – a prop he helped tutor in the Harlequins academy, and who will be his direct opponent.

The reunions can wait until the post-match banquet, but Ross is happy to admit that his three seasons in the English Premiership made him as an international-class prop.

There was a stark shift in culture from playing All-Ireland League to operating in the macho world of the English top flight, where the scrum is, first and foremost, where one's credentials are established and, at times, destroyed.

Those three seasons set him up for his move to Leinster and the provincial success that followed. Since 2011, he has been the bedrock of the Irish scrum, taking over from the venerable John Hayes as the man who the country can't afford to get injured.

HORIZON

It has all come late to Ross, now 34, and there are pretenders to his throne – not least Marty Moore, who will come off the bench and replace him at some stage today – but he is not letting go of his No 3 jersey any time soon; not until he has achieved some silverware with Ireland anyway.

A Triple Crown this evening would be a good start.

"I was talking to Johnny Sexton last night about this. I don't have one, he doesn't have one and there are a lot of us who weren't on that Grand Slam team of 2009," he says.

"It's a necessary thing – when you win a Triple Crown it goes a long way to winning the championship.

"It would be a good away win – not a lot of teams win at Twickenham – so it would really be a benchmark of our progress. It will probably be a tougher game than what we've played so far and, if we win, it will be another bit closer to getting that championship that we all want."

England was a tough breeding ground for the man in his mid-20s who arrived at the Stoop in search of a second chance in the professional game, having been overlooked by his native province.

From the start, he noticed that scrummaging was more than a way of restarting the game across the Irish Sea.

"It was seen as a test of manhood almost," he remembers. "When you were doing scrum training on the scrum machine, the coach would be piling on extra sand-bags and asking us was it too heavy and we always replied: 'More weight please'. It was a mental test.

"In the three seasons I was there, myself and the loosehead Ceri Jones always featured in the top 10 for minutes played every year. One season I played 14 games in a row playing 80 minutes in each; it certainly was a good proving ground; you are coming up against good players every week."

All props must be put through the ringer to get through to the other side; bad days at the office are badges of honour for the experienced operator.

"In my first Premiership start I was up against Martin Castrogiovanni who was playing loosehead. It was a baptism of fire," Ross recalls.

"You had good days and bad days. I remember in 2009, after the infamous 'Bloodgate' quarter-final against Leinster, we went up to Sale the following week and I found Andy Sheridan in a filthy mood and nothing I was doing went right.

"Our team was still in bits after the quarter-final – that was one of the toughest games I ever played in my life, a tough day at the office. "You need those as a prop, to grow and develop. If I see a young lad getting a tough day at the office, well he'll either learn from it or he won't and, if he does, he'll be all the better for it."

Two years ago, he watched on injured from the Twickenham dug-out as his replacement and good friend Tom Court got destroyed while covering the wrong side of the scrum.

Panic reigned to the degree that the IRFU advertised for a (still unfilled) national scrum coach within days and the nation searched for answers as to why we could not produce able deputies.

The change to the rules to allow two props take their place on the bench means that scenario won't be repeated again today, but the emergence of Moore, Stephen Archer and Declan Fitzpatrick as cover has made a real difference in easing the pressure on the first-choice man.

Things have come full circle to such a degree that Ireland look better placed to dominate the scrum than an English side forced to press David Wilson into action after just 47 minutes of club rugby since the turn of the year.

Moore and Tadhg Furlong, who impressed again for Leinster in Cardiff on Thursday, are now becoming real rivals for Ross' jersey. He has helped them thus far, but the more experienced they get, the more threatening they become.

"You coach them until they get good," he says with a laugh. "I would have chatted to them over the years, but at the same time you have to leave them off at some stage as well.

"They have to figure things out for themselves. I'll still have chats with them. Marty has been pushing me hard this season and Tadhg is coming hard on his heels so he has got to worry about Tadhg.

"That's the way of it, but competition is good. It makes you hungry, makes you realise you can't relax."

Ross has come to accept that the days of playing 80 minutes are gone; the new rules have put paid to that. Taking the hit out of the scrum has reduced the impact, but it has elongated the push and increased the pressure. It is now a battle of wills as well as strength.

"Hit and chase was an explosion; now you have sustained pressure that you have to channel through your back," Ross explains.

ABSORB

"It's become more of a mental thing too. You have to absorb the pressure and wait for the opportunity, wait for them to break first. It's tough, you're hanging in there for 15 seconds sometimes, like being at the bottom of a deep squat with a couple of hundred kilos going through your back trying to fight out of it.

"The impact is less, but the pressure is more. So, coming out of a scrum you have a good bit of lactic acid in your legs and you're trying to make the next ruck or get into the defensive line.

"If you look around, most props don't make 60 minutes now and that's why it's crucially important to have a good front-row on the bench."

Two years on from the St Patrick's Day massacre, Ireland's front-row is in much better shape. The senior man in the most experienced trio in championship history, Ross now wants some silverware to mark his 37th cap.

Doing it on an English field would be a fitting piece of symmetry.

Irish Independent