The tight-head will tomorrow play his 23rd game of the 25 Tests Schmidt has overseen since assuming the head coach role in the autumn of 2013, looking to ruin an Italian scrum he describes as “the mojo” of the Azzurri’s game and help Ireland into the World Cup quarter-finals.
The statistic is a tribute both to Ross’s durability and his importance to one of his team’s strongest weapons although the 35-year-old from Cork sees his achievement slightly differently.
“Ah, Joe just doesn’t like me off the bench!” Ross joked yesterday. “I don’t know, it’s a nice record to have. It’s far better than the alternative, so hopefully he’ll keep picking me. I have to hold up my end of the bargain too and deliver a strong set-piece and other bits and pieces around the field.
“I always joke if you just don’t carry the ball, you won’t get injured. I suppose I’ve been lucky but at the same time I came to professionalism late so it’s not like I’ve been doing this since I was 19 or 20. I was 26 so I had a bit more time to mature as a player before I started taken the big professional-sized hits, so I think that’s helped.”
Ross’s late start in the pro ranks is well documented, having left his native Munster for Harlequins before joining Leinster in 2009 having made his Test debut that summer. His first Six Nations appearance in 2011 came at the age of 31 and against Italy in Rome no less and 53 caps later, Ross feels he has improved as a scrummager.
“I think when the new laws came in, I did struggle a little at the start. For eight years, I’d been all about winning the hit and now it’s more of a wrestle. As time has gone on, I really like the new laws. The impacts are much less, collapses are much less and it’s no longer become the hit and chase.
“It’s become a bit more technical and I’ve enjoyed that. Our scrums have been going pretty well the last couple of seasons. We’ve had very good results in terms of our own ball, scrums won, and given our backs decent ball to play off.
“We’ve done a hell of a lot of work. A lot of credit goes to Greg Feek for the amount of hours he’s put in and I think it’s become fairly well-oiled at this stage, but we’re aware that we’re only as good as our last game, and the Italians will certainly pose a fairly stern challenge in that area.”
Italy may be missing first-choice hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini and the old guard such as Martin Castrogiovanni are fading and surplus to requirements this weekend but Ross is bracing for as competitive a scrum contest as ever. “For the Italians, the scrum is like their mojo — if the scrum isn’t going well then they suffer, the effects are going to be seen throughout the team.
“When it’s going well and they’re on top and they’re winning penalties, they seem visibly boosted by it and listening to the ref audio, next time they have a scrum you hear a big scream out of them and they try and walk over the ball, they’re all slapping each other, (captain Sergio) Parisse is giving them socks.
“Yeah, it’s a big area for them, it’s something they’re proud of and rightly proud of for a long time.” Ross may be self-deprecating, an excellent example yesterday being the following: “The last time I played an 80-minute game was against Australia last year and I reckon Joe was just full of opioids from the pain in his side (due to appendicitis) and forgot to take me off.”
Yet just as Italy are rightly proud of their scrum, so too are Ireland of their tight-head. And long may it continue.
“You know, when you get into your 30s, you know that the number of games you’ve got left for Ireland is finite so you want to make the most of every one you get,” he said.
“I don’t know myself when the end is going to come but it’s closer than the start of my career is, anyway. So I want to keep playing as long as I can, and enjoy every minute because it always has been a tremendous honour to play for my country and to be given that jersey.
“But at the same time you know you’re just keeping it warm for the next man. Body permitting, I’ll keep going until I feel I can’t.”