Thursday 14 November 2019

Mike Ross: The Gentle Giant

Cian Tracey talks to Mike Ross about the power of the prop and the joys of fatherhood

Mike Ross and his daughter Chloe
Mike Ross and his daughter Chloe
Mike Ross with his son Kevin. Photo: Mark Nixon
Mike Ross
Rory Best with his son, Ben
Paul O'Connell with son, Paddy

Across his 10-year professional career, Mike Ross has seen plenty of changes within the laws of the scrum. Just the other day, while at home relaxing, he came across an Australian rugby highlights show on television that was illustrating the evolution of the scrum.

The 35-year-old found it "incredible to watch" but then again, why wouldn't he? The tighthead prop is a self-confessed 'scrum-nerd' and this is exactly the kind of thing that stokes his fire. The changes have meant that Ross has had to adjust his weight and body shape down through the years, but he points out that no matter how big or powerful a prop is, he won't go far without the right technique.

Ross's technique is amongst the best in the game and it is what he prides himself on, but prior to the Six Nations, Leinster coach Matt O'Connor dropped him from the match-day 23 for the crunch European Champions Cup pool matches against Castres and Wasps, with Marty Moore starting in the No 3 jersey and Tadhg Furlong on the bench.

The Cork native's lack of game time meant that Ireland coach Joe Schmidt selected him for the Wolfhounds game against England Saxons and, after putting in a decent shift, he hasn't looked back since.

With another Six Nations medal in his pocket and his Leinster place regained, Ross is in a good place mentally and physically, but he knows that the level of competition for both province and country leaves no room for complacency ahead of the World Cup.

The former Munster player has learned a trick or two in his career, and despite this being a clear advantage over his younger competitors, he isn't shy to pass on words of advice.

"It's always tempting not to tell them anything and let them figure it out for themselves but that can be detrimental to the team," he explains.

"If a guy comes on for you during a game and doesn't do his job, and you end up losing, it harms everyone. Players will get selected on their own merit.

"It's one thing being told a trick in front row but actually going out on the pitch and doing it under pressure is what really matters."

The fluctuating laws within the scrum have lessened the immediate hit between the opposing front rows, but Ross is adamant that criticisms from the outside are unjust and that the set piece is still very much a positive aspect of the game.

Dietary requirements have regularly altered in order for Ross to keep up with what's going on around him, but it's a simple case of adapting to the changes.

The sport has increasingly come under the microscope with collisions getting ever more seismic, but in terms of the scrum, Ross believes that front-row forwards are protected more now with the new laws.

"It's come a long way. There's less impact nowadays than say there was 10 years ago when the referee's call was 'crouch, touch, engage'," he explains.

"I saw a statistic saying that the hit used to be 22 g-force but it's now down around 15gs. That's a huge drop.

"I think props' backs would have been in tatters in the past compared to now but in saying that, in our position, we're the shock absorbers of the entire scrum.

"You tend to focus on your own role, which is obviously the scrum. If that goes well but the team still gets hockeyed, it doesn't reflect that poorly on the front row.

"People have been going on about the scrum a lot in recent years but I think it has improved massively. Props are trying to push earlier now and at an angle, but it's making it easier for referees to spot and penalise it.

"You see a lot of young props in the gym nowadays and they're benching massive weights that you could only dream of being able to lift, but I have 10 years' ­experience on them so it balances itself out.

"You're starting to see younger props playing international rugby as well. In the past, you'd rarely see a prop under 25 playing but now guys are making their debuts much younger.

"If I see a small prop up against me, I know that he's likely to have good technique rather than being there for his size. Cian Healy isn't the biggest guy in the world but he's got great technique," Ross adds.

Three seasons spent in England with Harlequins in what he describes as a "macho league" was hugely beneficial in terms of his learning experience, and with the massive talent pool in Ireland at the moment, he expects more young players to seek further opportunities abroad.

"We're lucky that at Leinster we have two sets of international quality front rows. Training is very competitive, week in, week out, but that's good because it raises everyone's standards," Ross says.

"I learned a lot going to England. My development really accelerated from playing over there. I played a lot of games. I was in the top 10 players for playing the most minutes - at one point I had played 14 games in a row, which isn't bad for a prop!

"If you want to make it as a professional, sometimes it is more beneficial going abroad for a while. There is so much talent in Ireland right now that it's probably going to happen more often but I wouldn't look at that as a negative.

"If you look at the top leagues in Europe, Ireland only have four employers, England have 12 and France 14. The opportunities are definitely out there, it's just a matter of taking them.

"It will mean that guys will be leaving their comfort zone but that will stand to them further down the line."

Outside of trying to perfect the dark arts of the scrum, family time is central to Ross' life. His son Kevin is at an age now where he attends the majority of his dad's games, and Ross jokes that he's formed his own little posse in the Ireland camp.Paul O'Connell and Rory Best both take their sons to the games and Ross loves nothing more than watching the three of them playing together.

"My son, Kevin, will always ask me now if Ben Best is going to the games," Ross laughs. "The three boys are always romping around the dressing room, playing together and it's great to see. They're great pals.

"I was saying to Paul after the England game, when we were watching the boys playing, that some day I might be standing here saying 'jeez that Paddy O'Connell is very like his dad'.

"Kevin has been playing rugby tots since he was two. It's great for him and he loves it. I'm actually watching him lining up a shot at goal at the moment and he's pretending he's Johnny Sexton.

"He wants to play as a tighthead prop but he also wants to take the kicks! I've told him that he better not disgrace me by having a double digit on the back of his jersey like Luke Fitzgerald did to his father (Des, a former Ireland prop)!"

During his playing days with UCC, Ross lined out against Keith Earls' father, Ger. "It's strange how these things work out," Ross chuckles.

He remains an important cog in Ireland's wheel ahead of the World Cup and for Leinster in their Champions Cup campaign.

Ross isn't ready to pass on the mantle to the younger generation just yet and who knows, maybe one day he'll be passing the tricks of the trade on to his own son.

Irish Independent

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