Thursday 19 April 2018

Ross creates fairytale of north Cork

Eamonn Sweeney

It was one of those perfectly respectable but never very exciting sporting careers.

He came from a small village, took up rugby with the junior club in the nearby small town and managed to move up to the AIL. Then, a brief flurry of excitement as he earned a provincial contract. Followed by the disappointment when after a couple of seasons outside the first team they told him he wasn't really up to it and they were cutting him loose. At the age of 26, his flirtation with the big time was over. He'd become one of those lads who would someday hear that line in Rock 'N' Roll (I Gave You All The Best Years Of My Life), 'She finally made me realise I'd never be a star,' bite their lip and think, 'fuck it, that's me.'

Yet five years later there he is, coming close to man of the match honours in one of the greatest victories in Irish sporting history. Mike Ross from the little north Cork village of Ballyhooly, ex of Fermoy Rugby Club and Cork Constitution, former Munster reject, helping Ireland scrum mighty Australia into the ground so that the front row of the Tri Nations champs did everything but beg for mercy. Coming into his kingdom in his 31st year. A Cinderella story? Cinderella has a Mike Ross story.

He started to turn things around when he went to Harlequins in the aftermath of being cut by Munster, won a first team place there and proved able to scrummage against the best the Premiership had to offer. Not that this made anyone at home think of Mike Ross as a serious player. These were the years when everyone wondered aloud what would happen if John Hayes got injured or retired. Because we had nothing, absolutely nothing, coming through to replace him.

And when Mike Ross came home to play for Leinster and Michael Cheika wouldn't pick him in the first team, it looked as though Munster's estimation hadn't been too far wrong. Something lacking there obviously.

But the Ballyhooly boy kept plugging away and when, earlier this year, he finally made his Six Nations debut at the age of 31, it was a nice story, if perhaps one which showed the paucity of front row talent on offer. What nobody expected was that Mike Ross would actually prove to be not just an adequate replacement for John Hayes but a far better scrummager. And that in tandem with the athletic monster that is Cian Healy, he would make the Irish scrum a source of strength instead of the sporting equivalent of one of those embarrassing relations everyone is worried will let the family down on the big day.

So well has he done that there's now general agreement that Ross, along with Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll, is one of our three irreplaceable players and that our fate may well depend on his remaining fit for the rest of the tournament.

If, five years ago as his dreams lay in tatters, Mike Ross had told someone that one day he'd be up there with O'Connell and O'Driscoll, the chances are they'd have thought, 'Poor Mike. I suppose this is his way of coping with it'. But Mike Ross had another way of coping with failure. He turned it into success. And in doing so he has become the Patron Saint of journeymen everywhere. Ballyhooly's Rocky Balboa.

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