This time four years ago, Mike Ross was trying to figure out how to impress his fellow World Cup squad members.
Tradition dictates that if you’re selected in the Ireland squad you get a present for every other player in the 31-man group.
“You had to try and not pay for it, so you lean on the sponsors or what have you... I’ve still a lot of stuff at home. It’s crazy, guys are running around trying to get what others didn’t.
“Robbie Henshaw, I think, got us sunglasses, then there were headphones, and I got everyone wine and whiskey.”
Any particularly bad presents? “Tadhg Furlong presented everyone with some colourful socks... he wasn’t on the same contract he is now.’
This year, Ross won’t even get socks. And he’s sending out consolation texts instead of whiskey.
The tighthead prop has retired, with two World Cup adventures under his belt, but he still felt a pang of disappointment on Monday when two former teammates, Devin Toner and Jack McGrath, missed out on another adventure of their own.
McGrath, a fellow front row union comrade, was dropped despite being a Lions tourist just two years ago, while Toner, who spent many an afternoon joined to Ross’ hip, was an even more surprising omission.
The chatter at Carton House on Monday was that if 100 players could have selected a 31-man squad, 100 of them would have included Toner.
“I’d have been the same... Dev, James Ryan, Iain Henderson — then another one or two,” said Ross.
“So I was quite surprised by Dev. I’ve nothing against Jean Klyen, he’s played well for Munster, but he didn’t show it yet in an Ireland shirt. It’s a tough call on Dev, especially the way the lineout’s been going. He mustn’t have been going well in training. Joe wouldn’t have done it lightly.”
Could it be a power selection, in the same way Rhys Ruddock, Dave Kilcoyne, and Chris Farrell appear more physical and dynamic than those left out?
“I’m not sure, if he’s going for power squad,” Ross said. “Dev’s not a shrinking violet in contact, but is he as good as Kleyn? That’s something Joe would be asking.
“I would say it would be a risk not taking Dev in regards to the lineout, but knowing Joe as I do, he will not be thinking it’s a risk. He wouldn’t make that call if he wasn’t confident in who will make the calls.
“Iain called when Dev was out... I’m not 100% sure who will do that in Japan, but James Ryan is a very smart kid too, so he’ll be well able for that.
“Overall, Joe must think Kleyn’s upside outweighs not bringing Dev... that’s the calculation. He’s a powerful tighthead scrummager, he brings that weight and ballast and he’s been a bit of an enforcer for Munster. We saw flashes of that v Italy and if he can carry that forward to Japan, it could be useful against the Scots and the Samoans, and especially so if we meet South Africa in the quarter-finals. There’s a possibility he’s looking to fight fire with fire.”
To many fans, the distinction between tighthead and loosehead lock isn’t as strong as it may be for Schmidt, given how many players wear both numbers. Ross takes over: “A classic tighthead — like Joe is speaking about — is more physically imposing, think of Simon Shaw, Martin Johnson, Brad Thorn... the bigger man mountains, whereas a loosehead lock is the rangier one, an athlete who’s quicker on the ground. A tighthead can be up to 130kg, if you’re lucky, while the other lad around 115kg.
“Paul O’Connell could do both roles, he was one of the best tighthead locks ever, even if he didn’t look it.
“Dev had the physical size to play tighthead lock but his height makes him both. He’s maybe not as dynamic as Paulie or Iain, but those huge arms could really disrupt teams. He trimmed up a lot in last couple of seasons, he lost five to six kilos but I thought he was going better than ever.”
Ross sent a text on Monday to Toner and McGrath, who he feels is bearing the brunt of a heavy workload over the past two seasons. And the former Leinster tighthead knows just how ruthless the head coach can be.
Ahead of the South Africa tour in 2016 — Ireland’s first win on Springbok soil, Schmidt told Ross to “enjoy these, there’s not many left”, and sure enough that was his last time in green, with Tadhg Furlong and Andrew Porter coming on board with an eye on Japan.
Things went to plan from then on, until February’s shock loss to England. The recent defeat in Twickenham has heaped more pressure on a team that looked to be heading east with serious expectations.
“Ten months ago, we were kings of the world after we beat NZ — and it was one of the best games I’d ever seen any Irish team play,” said Ross, “but the performance may have only fallen 5% since and that’s the margins at this level.
“Joe speaks softly but he carries a big bloody stick and I’m sure the debrief would have been very painful.
“Joe’s tougher on himself than anyone, I’ve seen pictures of him lately and he looks like he’s lost weight, he’s such an incredibly hard worker,” said Ross. “He’s got very clear expectations of you. If players don’t meet his expectations, they’re out. It is as simple as that.
“I think, given how far we’ve come under Joe since 2015, we travel in expectation rather than hope.”