Ireland’s World Cup opener against the USA threw up more questions than answers, more doubts than certainties, and more problems than solutions, but one area that could be placed in the file marked ‘positives’ was the scrum.
Even allowing for the fact that the American scrum was nowhere near as powerful as their South African, English or even Australian counterparts, Ireland’s dominance was extremely encouraging — although no longer surprising.
Since Mike Ross was, belatedly, installed as first-choice tight-head last spring, Ireland have found themselves with a scrum that no longer hopes to contain, but now seeks to dominate.
It is not just the No 3, of course, the pack as a unit is scrummaging with greater effectiveness under former All Blacks prop Greg Feek, but Ross (pictured) is the figurehead, the technician and the primary source of power.
Ireland should be grateful the Cork-man was wearing green last Sunday because Ross could have been bringing his power to bear for the Americans and with just a 12-point Irish winning margin, the consequences of a dominant US scrum do not bear thinking about.
“Yeah, I have strong links with America, my wife is American, so is my mother and I played for Boston Irish when I was over there about 10 years ago, a very enjoyable time,” says Ross.
“I actually have an American passport, but they never came in for me, I don’t think they are aware.”
They are now.
Ross’s journey to the top is well known by now. From UCC to Cork Constitution to fringe Munster player, four successful years with Harlequins, a year on and off the Leinster bench before last season’s triumphant procession to the Heineken Cup and first-choice Irish tight-head.
He may be 31, but everything seems fresh and exciting to the Ballyhooley-man, his eagerness honed by a long residency in the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ ward.
“Four years ago, I was watching Ireland at the World Cup from England, but I wasn’t thinking ‘I’m going to be at the next one’,” he said.
“I never look too far ahead, I learnt that long ago, I could fall down the steps on the way to training and get a career-ending injury.
“This is my first proper tour,” he reveals. “I made my Ireland debut in north-America a few years ago, but that was totally different. It was low-key and short, the Leinster players weren’t there because of the Heineken Cup, this is at a completely different level.”
His appreciation of the experience is accentuated by the fact that, though he returned to Ireland with the express intention of bringing this about, his first season back at Leinster produced two sizeable roadblocks in the shape of Stan Wright and CJ van der Linde.
With Van der Linde’s expensive, unfulfilling stint in Ireland over, Joe Schmidt gave
Ross that start and the benefits for player and province were immediate. It saw Ross called into the Ireland squad for last November’s international series, but despite the Irish scrum creaking alarmingly, he never got the call-up. More frustration.
“It was hard,” recalls Ross. “You always want to back yourself and everybody wants to play for their country, but I knew if I just kept putting the pressure on and playing well for Leinster I would get my chance and I did in the Six Nations. You get one cap and all you want is the next cap.
“I have worked hard on my loose game. Harlequins was about designated runners and lads just lumped into rucks, but the way Leinster and Ireland play, I needed to expand that side of my game, you have to be able to handle, pass and carry — at the same time I’m not going to be firing out 30-yard passes, but I have to be able to link if I’m needed.”
Just as with his scrummaging, once Ross got in, he was always going to be hard to budge, to the point that his availability is now critical to Ireland’s World Cup aspirations.
From also-ran to must-have — it is a hell of a journey in a short space of time.
And so to the Wallabies. If Australians had their way, there would be no scrummaging in rugby. This nation of lowest common denominator, rugby league lovers just wants to keep the ball in play.
Of course, that attitude is promoted by the fact that for years, the Australian scrum has had all the power of puff pastry and led directly to their World Cup quarter-final exit in 2007. Ross, however, has been studying the Wallabies and acknowledges the vast improvements at scrum time.
“I know they’ve had their difficulties in the past, but it seems like the work they’ve put into it has paid off. I was watching the Italian match at the weekend and the Aussies did very well on their own ball. Even reviewing the Tri Nations and contrasting that with the Italian game, you can see that they’ve changed things slightly, they’ve got a little quicker and it seems to be paying off for them.”
While the scrum will be Ross’s primary focus, he is aware of the need for a compelling Irish performance, a display to put the run of bad form behind them and build some World Cup momentum.
“The mood in the camp is good,” he insists. “We just want to do ourselves justice because we haven’t really. We have shown glimpses, but have to put it together consistently. We know we are capable of playing like we did against England in March, it is just a case of bringing it out.”
After five poor performances on the trot, Ireland need a big one this weekend and their situation could be summed up by the phrase Ross employs to describe his own slow road to success.
“Better late than never.”