Wednesday 25 April 2018

Mike Ross: Any cheating in me was knocked out years ago!

Mike Ross
Mike Ross
David Kelly

David Kelly

BORING has probably been the word of the 2015 Six Nations championship. Many of the matches have been boring. Ireland are boring. Wales are boring.

Much of the commentary about the boring matches has been quite boring, too.

With Wayne Barnes in charge - he dished out 26 penalties in his last game and is so pedantic that he probably cleans his car with a toothbrush - few expect that Ireland's visit to Wales may offer much in the entertainment stakes. Little wonder World Rugby trumpeted this week their keenness to accelerate rule changes as soon as feasible.

Mike Ross could be worth a phone call from the bureaucratic pointy-heads. The tighthead props union may be a minority voice but they have had enough of the "boring" word, too.

Except their application of the word is a tad different.

When the front-row grunts speak of "boring", they refer to the irksome and illegal practice of "boring in", when the loose-head drives at an angle towards the hooker and/or tighthead.

Wales' most capped player, Gethin Jenkins, has long been celebrated as one of the best/worst exponents of the technique which, like the hindmost foot at ruck time, or midfield offside - feel free to add your own pet hate - are predominantly ignored by officialdom.

Binned

Jenkins, however, has not been so lucky. In 12 years of international rugby he had been only yellow-carded once before; but last season he was binned three times in six Test matches.

14 February 2015; Teddy Thomas, France, offloads the ball to teammate Wesley Fofana despite the tackle of Mike Ross, Ireland. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v France. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
14 February 2015; Teddy Thomas, France, offloads the ball to teammate Wesley Fofana despite the tackle of Mike Ross, Ireland. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v France. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

He is not alone. Thomas Domingo did so against Ireland last season, the Italian prop Matias Aguero did so this term and, most pointedly, Joe Marler was at it against Leinster and Ross in December.

None received sanction; all received plaudits from deluded commentators..

Since the hit was abolished, the practice is more frequent than ever but Ross is not fearful of Jenkins getting one over him this weekend, particularly with pernickety Barnes prepared to swallow his pea-shooter.

"You see he mixes up what he does," says Ross with the diplomacy expected in a Test match week of a player who had thrived on forward momentum masking his technical deficiencies.

"He's a very experienced campaigner, Wales' most capped player ever so he has a lot of arrows in his armoury.

"He might come across me, he might stay there. It just depends what he's in the mood for that day. You always hope that if you're keeping a legal shape and your opponent doesn't, then the ref picks up on that.

"But it can be a difficult job for the referee to pick up on everything, so sometimes breaks don't always go your way and you have to deal with that."

As with other transgressions, it is a balance between the players getting away with as much illegality as possible while the referees struggle to keep up with their wiles.

Nigel Owens is one referee who has charged that the players are more guilty than the referees; Ross, for his part, stoutly defends his honour and claims that he is not a cheat.

"No! Greg Feek knocked that out of me a while ago," he strongly demurs. "When I was in Premiership it was a case of anything goes as long as you're going forward.

"So the obvious one for a tighthead is to go in across the hooker, but if you don't get that right you're leaving yourself open for a world of pain. So the percentage move is to stay straight.

"You might get a penalty, you might be penalised; whereas if you stay straight, you won't get penalised and you're guaranteed possession."

It seems too incredible to be true but then, Ross always seems to lock the scrum with the perfect angle; straight back, knees bent.

But even if he is pinged, as happened for the first few months of the season, is he not tempted to dump his code of honour?

"Well, you see, if you decide to chuck that out the window and you try and be illegal, then you might get penalised again!

"Whereas you might get suckered twice but at the same time you that could be on the opposition ball.

"We pride ourselves on our ball-retention. If you look back at last year's Six Nations, our scrum probably stayed up the most and we won the most percentage of ball.

"That was a huge factor in us winning the title, so it's a possession game at the end of the day. Don't get me wrong, I love to march forward and get the penalty. That's great.

"But at the same time if I have nowhere to go and have to do something illegal which could be picked up on, it's probably not worth the percentages."

And Ireland play the percentages as amply demonstrated in all aspects of this season's title charge.

Ross was integral to last year's effort but, unlike some in the squad, has yet to taste the glory of a Grand Slam; he came home from England to do just that but 2009 passed him by as he remained moored in obscurity at Leinster.

And so he watched Ireland's dramatic win in Cardiff six years ago from the couch, like hundreds of thousands of his fellow countrymen.

"Barnes was refereeing that match, too," he reminds us, as if few can forget the late penalty award against Paddy Wallace.

"My heart was in my mouth when Stephen Jones stepped up to take that penalty. The only man happier than myself that he missed it was Paddy!

"Going over there is never an easy game. I remember we had a good string of losses against them before we won the last two. They've already lost one game at home and be sure they won't want to lose another."

Edging Marler last time out, in the context of his December travails, offers a firm boost.

Leinster had dropped him and many thought that Joe Schmidt might follow suit. Both have been vindicated.

"I knew if I kept Joe out then a lot of what he can do can be negated. I suppose it was better in the Six Nations than Europe."

Irish Independent

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