Leinster and Ireland rugby hero Mike Ross opens up on his relationship with Joe Schmidt, watching Tadhg Furlong rise through the ranks, and being a part of bringing through the next generation of Irish rugby players.
by Mike Ross.
Joe Schmidt wrote the foreword to my autobiography. Seven and a half pages about him and me, and the essential role of tighthead prop in any successful rugby team.
I presumed locking the Leinster scrum was all that really mattered.
‘What else are you going to do?’ he asked at our first meeting.
‘I’ll hit rucks!’
‘I don’t want you just hitting rucks,’ Joe replied. ‘I want you making good decisions.’
It was never going to be all sweetness and light, mind. Not how the man operates. It wasn’t my idea but I’m glad we asked him. Liam Hayes, the co-author of Dark Arts, wondered if Joe would agree. Not as if the Ireland coach had anything better to be doing! I can only guess the amount of requests that reach him on a daily basis.
Surprisingly, he said yes.
There was another good reason. Joe was the central figure in my late blooming pro career. He gave me an opportunity after Michael Cheika decided anyone but Mike Ross would wear blue number three. Joe even doubled down, handing over 30 of my 61 Ireland caps from age 33 to 36.
Joe Schmidt believed when others did not.
Certainly, it’s a nice way to begin my story. He wrote about the enormous value of tightheads, and how I eventually fit that mould, but not before mentioning my multiple contributions to Stuart Hogg tries.
‘Hogg seemed to find Rossy every time we played.’
He does mention the tackle I made on Tevita Kuridrani.
We are neighbours, Joe and I. Our wives, Kellie and Kimberlee, are friends. Back in March, during the snow storm, he was delighted to see his old prop shovelling the foot path as it meant he could finish his morning walk.
We catch up every now and then. I’ve been over to the house a few times. There he is, in the den, reviewing game film. He’s relentless when it comes to studying the opposition and players he may or may not choose to pick. He puts the ‘microscope’ away when there is company but wander into the Carton House team room in the wee hours and there you shall find Joe.
Last man standing, always.
I don’t know if he relaxes in between Ireland camps. Probably not. What’’s the secret to his coaching methods? None at all. He certainly doesn’t make rugby simple. He makes it challenging by showing how many people are needed for multiple small jobs to create a tear in the fabric of the English or New Zealand defence. Once everyone understands the level of detail that is required you get genuine buy-in. He sets the standard with his work ethic.
I spent six years under his tutelage. Six bloody good years.
My rugby career is bookended by Grand Slams – only returning from Harlequins in 2009 I missed the first boat and by 2018 I was high up in the Twickenham stand with my son Kevin – but I picked up a few medals along the way.
All under Joe Schmidt.
He demanded more from me than I’d ever given before. Funnily enough, he never asked me to throw the Tadhg Furlong pass leading up to CJ Stander’s try against England last year. I heard they ran that move countless times during the week and kept messing it up. When it really mattered, Tadhg to Bundee Aki to CJ came off perfectly as Ireland shredded the English fabric.
It’s all about trust in this Ireland squad – and HOLDING ONTO THE BALL – but there’s a bit of divilment in Joe.
‘Unassuming, understated and indispensible,’ he concluded in Dark Arts, ‘Rossy was the tighthead we needed!’
Joe giveth and Joe taketh away. That’s part of his greatness as a coach. Brings you back down to earth, keeps you focused on getting better every single day.
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It’s a World Cup year so old fears inevitably resurface. The pain of losing the 2011 quarter-final to Wales will never pass. It still hurts because we had our best team on the pitch and didn’t deliver. They chopped us down at the knees. Give me back 2015 in Cardiff and I’d turn to our captain before the French game: ‘Now, Paulie, no jackalling for the last five minutes of the first half.’
There will only ever be one Paul O’Connell. I’d also corner Seanie O’Brien, ‘I know Pascal Pape is a bollocks but don’t touch him, no matter what he says or does!’
If we had those two on the pitch against Argentina that would have been enough, I’d say, to reach our first ever semi-final.
But what Joe has done in the last four seasons to build the depth Ireland now possesses is an achievement nobody in Irish rugby ever thought possible. Except maybe the man himself.
Japan 2019? We know Ireland can beat the All Blacks – you must keep attacking them – so whether it’s them or the Springboks in the quarter-final I’d be confident in this group of players with these leaders.
Ireland are a bit smarter than South Africa – Joe will find a weakness. The combination of wise old heads (Johnny, Pete, Rob, Dev, Rory) and young winners with no fear is a powerful combination.
This Ireland team will always hit you with something you don’t expect.
Success breeds success. There are lots of young players coming through now. They grew up watching those early Triple Crowns under Eddie O’Sullivan, the Munster European Cups of 2006 and 2008, the 2009 Grand Slam, the coming of Leinster under Cheika then Joe.
There’s a sign in the Leinster dressing room: ‘Hard days exist for a reason, to drive the hunger.’
I think this group is very hungry.
The secret is no secret at all. Joe’s methods are based on putting faith in the players at his disposal. Look at Kieran Marmion. We didn’t miss Conor Murray during the November series. We didn’t need to rush him back for the All Blacks and risk further injury.
Do that in any walk of life; give somebody an opportunity and watch how they often reward you. Most hard workers will see the chance to better themselves, to make something of their lives.
I am living proof that some players will rise to the level they are playing at if given enough time to learn from their mistakes. Not many people watching amateur club rugby back in 2006 would have said, ‘That Mike Ross fella will rack up 61 caps for Ireland and anchor the scrum at two World Cups.’ All they saw was a big Cork Con tighthead who could scrummage (I could always scrummage).
Dean Richards at Harlequins turned me into a professional at 26. Deano – a legend of English rugby – allowed me to learn on the job and I paid him back handsomely over three seasons with a shed load of 80 minute performances. Cheika decided not to bother after I made a silly mistake against London Irish in October 2009 that contributed to a home defeat but Joe gave me a run of games after that season in the wilderness. It was simple: do more than scrummage and hit rucks and I’ll pick you. That was the deal we struck.
‘ROSSY!’ became a familiar chant during games (and whenever a laptop or ipad crashed).
I got my last cap age 36 in South Africa. Fourth oldest man to play for Ireland. Not bad. John Hayes was the oldest. You never get to leave the way you want. Hayes’ last game was against Connacht in a World Cup warm-up. Rog was that defeat in Murrayfield. Paulie got carted away in agony.
Okay, Drico got a 50 foot balloon send off against Italy!
So much of my book focuses on an unexpected professional career; about Bloodgate, about my difficult relationships with Aussie coaches, about every prop I’ve ever locked horns with, and just about making it after playing amateur rugby up until a point when I was about to emigrate to America.
It’s an unlikely story, and that’s why I told it.
For that reason and one other. Andrew. For 34 pages I try to paint a picture of my younger brother, less than two years between us, and how his suicide affected family life on the farm in North Cork.
And still does. It was very difficult chapter to write but it’s impossible to tell the story of my life without mentioning Andrew. Of course, the copy needed my mother’s approval before it went anywhere near the page. She corrected a few facts and memories. She showed me the note.
The entire process brought me back in time; to a summer in France when two teenage brothers were sent to separate farms, 20 miles apart, but met up for a few beers whenever we could. It was our first time in a foreign country without parental supervision. It was supposed to be the start of our lives.
Appearing on The Late Late Show – to promote the autobiography – was a tough experience made easier by Ryan Tubridy. I’d prefer to face the haka in a packed Aviva in my birthday suit than talk about my brother’s suicide on live television but it had to be done. I knew Ryan would ask about the note because we spoke beforehand.
Writing the book and remembering Andrew ended up being a cathartic experience. Hopefully it helps other families in a similar situation. People have reached out to me since. That’s important, and I don’t mind talking about it because it tends to be a silent epidemic. There are places to seek help, like The Samaritans, Pieta House and Anam Cara, which is for bereaved parents, and means ‘Soul Friend.’
‘Why’s that man crying Dad?’ Kevin asked on that freezing St Patrick’s Day in Twickenham.
‘Because we’ve just won the Grand Slam!’
I look at my son and can only wonder what he is thinking. A seven year old has already seen so many wonderful moments the rest of us have waited a life time for.
Success breeds success. He’s obsessed about the game so that means I’m coaching Bective Rangers under-9s every Sunday morning. Yes, he’s up a grade, he’s big, and recently beat his mother in an arm wrestle. She claims he cheated so the pride welled up inside. There is prop blood in him. Need to get him used to mud. Donnybrook, where Bective play and train, has the 4G pitch. It’s a great facility but rugby is about rolling around in the dirt.
We didn’t push him into it but he was exposed to the game at a young age. He loves it.
I’m not worried about Kevin playing rugby despite injury being an increased factor in the game. For every Brian O’Driscoll there will be maybe five Eoin O’Malley’s. Eoin was to be the centre who followed Brian, he had all the talent and the mentality to wear 13 for Leinster and Ireland. Injury denied him after a handful of seasons in blue.
We need to see the first fully professional generation to enter their 50s and 60s to truly understand the long term damage. But there is risk in everything. What I do know is rugby gives you so much – it teaches you about life and there is genuine comradeship. Most of my best friends come from the sport.
Despite ten years at the coal face I’m in pretty good shape. No concussion issues, hips and knees are good. I’ve a bulging disc in my neck that annoys me of late but touch wood I’ll be ok.
I do have regrets about my career. I wish it started earlier, obviously. I wish it went on a year or two longer. The 2013 Lions tour, I still feel, should have had my name among the tightheads. But I also know how it all so easily could have passed me by. Dean Richards took a chance. A three month contract. For six years, two World Cups and two successful European campaigns I was the Leinster and Ireland tighthead prop. I was the link in the chain from John Hayes to Tadhg Furlong.
I never got used to Being The Man. The paranoia, the ‘this is all a dream’ attitude served me well. Kept complacency from the door. The jersey could be taken away at any moment. That was my fuel.
I could see Tadhg coming in 2014. The talent, that burst of speed and power, was evident at 19, 20. Once he got the scrummaging right I knew I was in trouble. I probably hastened my own demise by working with him every day but it was the right thing to do. His talent was so special, imagine not nurturing that.
The end happened against the Springboks in the summer of 2016. The second test in Johannesburg was when Tadhg announced himself on a world stage by doing what I never achieved; he dominated Tendai Mtawarira. I always had problems against The Beast.
Joe gave me fair warning: ‘Make the most of this Rossy because there are not many more of these for you!’
Tadhg got one start in the three tests, and in he went and did a job on Mtawarira. I’d contemplated going inside the Springbok scrum but carving a hole between Adriaan Strauss and Tendai Mtawarira never felt like the wisest decision. No joy to be had, Rossy.
Tadhg decided differently.
I can see him getting 100 caps. If he stays fit. He’s already one of the best props we’ve ever had. He’s got the full package.
As a player I always coached my fellow props and hookers. I’d do research for fun on opposition. I’m keeping my hand in still with the Ireland women’s team where I look after the scrum. The role eats up a lot of weekends, but I thoroughly enjoy it, they’re a great bunch and they sacrifice so much to play for Ireland. I also do a bit of work with Malahide and UCD as well.
It never appealed to me to take it on full-time. Coaching is a tough gig. I work in software sales now with a company called Wizuda who specialise in secure data transfer. Sales is tough in its own way, but you have targets to aim for, just like sport. I’ve always loved my tech and I came so late to rugby that the fall out when it ended wasn’t as painful as it has been for others. They’re a good company and a great bunch of people to work with, couldn’t have had a better transition.
You do miss the big days. You miss the locker room. You miss the lads. It’s as tight a group as you’ll ever know and suddenly you are rejected from that environment. You can see them socially but it’s not the same. You are no longer in the trenches, no longer backing each other up in foreign lands. You don’t miss the relentless pressure of away games when the wind is howling sideways and the locals are going mental over the railings.
Most players struggle when the game moves on for one simple reason: rugby is the coolest thing you’ll ever do.
Just as you are becoming the master of your profession, ten years in, Father Time taps you on the shoulder, ‘Right lad, that’s it for you, go reinvent yourself as something totally different.’
It’s almost certainly going to take you as many years to become as competent in the next job you do. That’s tough for a thirty-something in sight of 40 with a young family.
And you must do it alone. You must earn for your family and do it without the daily serotonin release that comes from training.
Basically, rugby players are junkies. Serotonin comes gushing into the system from practice. Dopamine from celebrating a scrum penalty after owning the loosehead. All those hits disappear. The natural highs are stripped away. You become a mortal man again. The weekly pay off stops. The days seem longer now.
Pro rugby is a harsh environment. Nothing like the real world. It’s not a hostile work environment so long as you pull your weight. Marking time is not tolerated in the modern sporting organisations I experienced. You get rooted out by your peers before the coaches get hold of your contract.
Because I came so late to the pro game I was graded as a two year old in the gym. By the end I was 12. That’s where I am at once again in the tech industry. The bottom rung. I do build my own computers so I have reasonable knowledge, for an amateur, but I can’t program. I meet some scarily smart people. Just like I came across some scarily good loosehead props. Andrew Sheridan and Tendai stand above most. Cian Healy and Jack McGrath are both world class.
Now I exist in an environment where most people don’t care about rugby.
Get ready for that, lads.
I’m lucky. I found something I know I can do. You need that.
If you enjoyed Mike’s story, you might like to read former Munster rugby player Jonny Holland’s My Brief Tenure As The Munster 10.
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