Mike Ross is ready to rally Ireland’s retreating scrum when they open their RBS 6 Nations against Italy on Saturday.
The Irish set-piece, traditionally viewed as a weak link in their game, endured a torrid time last autumn when it was taken apart on several occasions.
Calls to draft in scrum specialist Ross were ignored, but his position as the country’s in-form tighthead could not be overlooked for the Six Nations.
And having established his reputation at provincial level, the 31-year-old Leinster prop knows he must deliver on his third Test appearance.
“There’s certainly an element of pressure, especially as it’s my first Six Nations appearance,” he said.
“The scrum concept is a strange one – if you’re a prop that’s what you’re examined on. If you don’t deliver...
“It’s a bit like a hooker not hitting any of his targets in the line-out or a second row not taking any, but I’ve been given my chance now and I have to take it.
“I take pride in my scrummaging. It’s something there has been a lot of focus placed on in recent seasons. It’s good to have a strong facet of one’s game that is recognised.”
Ross could hardly have asked for a tougher assignment for his first foray into the Six Nations.
While Italy’s overall limitations prevent them from flourishing in the competition, they remain one of the most feared scrummaging units in the game.
“Playing Italy in Rome is certainly a measure of where you are,” said Ross.
“The Italians have a very good scrum, they’re very aggressive and very strong. There’s Martin Castrogiovanni, who does the business week in and week out in the Premiership.
“And there’s Andrea Lo Cicero and Salvatore Perugini, who are strong men and no shrinking violets.
“You know that if you don’t front up in that area, there’s going to be a long afternoon ahead of you.
“In their match against Australia last November they just kept it in for five, six, 10 seconds, trying to force it. Eventually the Australians wilted, Italy drove over and got their penalty.
“So we really need to step up to the mark in that area. If they sense a weakness there, they’ll just go for it all day and won’t let up.”
Ross has been a late arrival in the camp, not winning his first cap until the 2009 Churchill Cup when he was 29.
Four years with Harlequins limited his prospects, with Irish selectors favouring players performing in the domestic provincial system.
But Ross views his time at Twickenham Stoop as crucial to his development and thanks Quins’ former director of rugby Dean Richards for the vital role he performed in his career.
“After I left college I was working a full-time job, which I combined with training and playing,” he said.
“There were some mornings I’d be getting up at 5am, going into get the work done before heading off to play for Shannon.
“I was 24 or 25 and wondering whether it was really ever going to happen for me. Thankfully, I got an opportunity to train with Munster during a Six Nations when the Irish lads were away and that brought me up a level.
“Then, when I got the chance to play a trial match for Harlequins, I was given a three-month contract. It kicked on from there.
“I owe a lot to Dean Richards. He took a punt on me because I didn’t have a huge rugby CV to speak of at the time.
“He looked at the trial games and I was lucky enough to play well in those. He offered me the deal but it must have been a close thing.”