When Mike Ross packed down against Italy on the opening weekend of the 2011 RBS Six Nations, it was his first Championship start.
The tighthead has since faced France and Scotland and having been given the go-ahead to continue tomorrow in Cardiff, he has begun to look like a Declan Kidney regular.
It has been a long, hard journey for the 30-year-old, but finally it is bearing fruit. Inclusion against England in the final match of the series would mean him having started in each of the five Championship outings. Barring disaster, a place on the late summer flight to New Zealand for the World Cup looks a reasonably safe bet.
His reflections on the campaign to date?
“It has certainly been a great experience. It’s a step above the Heineken Cup, that’s for sure, but it has been great,” the 6ft 2in, 19st 7lbs prop said.
“You want to push yourself and play at the highest level, so I’ve been enjoying every minute of it.”
Being in-camp means there is a lot of free time to be filled. Ross occupies his by reading — science-fiction, Ian Banks titles and watching television. Like quite a few of the other Irish players he has been keeping tabs on the cricket World Cup.
“Some of the lads followed it before though I never really would have,” he reveals.
Whilst he finds it “a bit slow at times” he has enjoyed it, with the highlight to date being Ireland’s remarkable victory over their English counterparts.
With Grand Slam-chasing England due in Dublin on Six Nations business next weekend, one wonders if he sees similarities in those situations?
He pounces on the question in a manner reminiscent of a dog savaging a sock.
“We don’t want to be classified as underdogs; that’s something we feel we need to get away from. With the quality of the players we have and the way we play as well, we feel we can more than match any other team in the world.
“I think the days of the Irish team putting itself down are over. We need to step on from that.”
Ross accepts the bookmakers’ thinking in having installed tomorrow’s Cardiff hosts as 11/8 favourites.
“Well, they’re at home so that’s probably a big part of it,” he points out.
At that the figurative door swings open, with Ross starting to reveal his thoughts on tomorrow’s Test.
He adds: “Wales have been playing well in patches. They’re missing a few players but when they switch it on they can beat any team in world rugby.
“We’ve seen that a few times from them so we’re really going to have to be on top of our game if we want to come out of the match with a win under our
belts.” With his five caps including two full 80-minute runs against Italy and France and a 70-minute shift against Scotland, Ross has been learning quickly about the demands of international rugby.
He said: “When you play Heineken Cup you do come up against some really good packs who play together week in and week out which is an advantage a club team will have over an international side.
“But at international level every one of the players is decent; there’s no weak link there so you have to be a little bit sharper in dealing with what comes your way, whether it’s something they’re doing or the referee’s interpretations.”
With regard to Ireland’s attempts to deal with the latter he adds: “I’m not 100% happy with it yet, but I certainly am happy with the way things are progressing.
“We need to keep going on that upward curve and not regress against Wales this weekend.”
There were misgivings about the Irish scrum at the outset of the campaign, not least because of the inexperience of the front row as a unit. Ross and Leinster colleague, loosehead Cian Healy, had two and 13 caps respectively. They and Ulster hooker Rory Best had never played together as a trio.
But Ross feels there has been an improvement and stresses that rivals adapt quickly when faced with a newcomer like himself.
“The stereotype of the props being very thick doesn’t hold true at this level. If you’re stupid, you simply won’t survive.”by niall crozier