IRISH props who can get the job done in the scrum – they’re a rare breed.
Cian Healy and Mike Ross have provided Ireland with solid engagement at the set-piece over the last 12 months, Tom Court offers decent cover for both sides, but beyond that Declan Kidney’s options are limited.
The likes of Jamie Hagan and Stephen Archer represent reasons to be mildly optimistic for the future of the Irish front-row, but it wasn’t so long ago that the same was said of Tony Buckley. A failure to produce props of international standard is one of the biggest threats to the success of the Irish rugby team in the future.
There’s a science to effective scrummaging that Irish rugby has struggled to master – it’s not just a case of finding the biggest guy and sticking him in your front-row (see Tony Buckley). But why has Ireland’s failure in the scrum been a recurring theme over the years?
“There’s not the same focus on it as there is in the Premiership,” says Exeter Chiefs prop John Andress, a Belfast native and Ireland A international.
“The Rabo (Direct Pro12) is a different type of league, there’s not as much of a focus on the scrum. It’s kind of a matter of just getting the ball in and out of there quickly so it doesn’t develop, whereas French and Premiership sides go for the long scrums and penalties.
“You come to a club like Exeter and there’s a real ethos behind the scrum. It’s the same at Leicester Tigers, Northampton, clubs like that. As a front-five forward, the Premiership is where you learn your trade the best.
“It’s possibly the hardest scrummaging league in the world. You can see that from the calibre of props in the league; it’s the place to be. The Premiership has an extremely high standard of scrummaging.”
Andress uses Mike Ross as a prime example. Ross seldom featured for Munster and was discarded by the province in 2006. The Corkman then spent three seasons in the Premiership, playing over 60 games for Harlequins.
He was snapped up by Leinster by 2009 and has since become the most important element of the Irish scrum and the proud owner of a Heineken Cup medal. Andress believes the 32-year-old’s success is down to the scrummaging education he received in the Premiership.
“Mike Ross learned his trade over here and that’s why he’s the scrummager he is today. I don’t think anyone gets near him back home at the minute as far as scrummaging goes. He’s done phenomenally well and he’s shown himself to be pretty much a cornerstone of the Irish pack.”
Neglecting the scrum at underage level is another key issue, according to Andress. He believes young Irish props need to be thrown in at the deep end and given time to develop and adapt to rugby at the highest level.
“There’s definitely not enough of a focus on the scrum for young players. People think, just bring in a foreigner or something like that because Irish people aren’t naturally strong and all that rubbish. That’s a load of nonsense. It just takes time and effort.
“The places for props at two of the provinces are taken up by foreigners, which isn’t exactly encouraging for youngsters coming through. They do have the ability but they’re not being given the game-time to develop into the players they could potentially be.”
It’s been notoriously difficult for Irish players based in the Premiership to gain international recognition, something Andress is only too familiar with. Having spent two seasons with Harlequins he returned to Sandy Park for a second spell with Exeter Chiefs last summer.
The 28-year-old has played just shy of 50 games in England in the last two-and-a-half seasons and his scrummaging ability has developed significantly since he joined Quins in 2009. However, that’s something that hasn’t been recognised by Ireland coach Declan Kidney. A substitute appearance in an A game against Scotland in February 2009 represents the extent of his international recognition.
“As far as Ireland wanting to develop props in the future,” says Andress, “how can they say they’re only going to pick players based in Ireland when you look at Mike Ross and the fact that he learned his trade while he was away?
“There was no one picked on either of the Irish squads recently from the Premiership. Roger Wilson has been outshining some of the best players at European level for the last while but he’s still not getting a look-in.
“It’s obviously the case that you’ve got to be playing back home to get the green jersey. But it’s interesting and you do wonder why some guys aren’t getting a look-in.”
Andress is out of contract at the end of the season and despite interest from the provinces, he’s decided to move to Worcester Warriors. His agent was in talks with Munster last season, but a deal to return to Ulster appeared to have been sealed until they managed to convince John Afoa to swap Auckland for Ravenhill.
“I don’t really want to go back home to sit on the bench behind someone I’m potentially better than,” explains Andress. “Munster have brought in BJ Botha this season and Ulster have got John Afoa, so I’d imagine there won’t be many opportunities there.”
Andress said in an interview last year that playing for Ireland was his goal and he’d “do anything to achieve that.” So if moving back to one of the provinces is what it takes, is that something the former Campbell College student will do?
“I’d have to,” he says. “Playing for Ireland is still a major aim for me. Ideally I’d be able to do that while playing in the Premiership but it looks like that won’t be possible. If going back home is what’s required, so be it, but I’m in no rush to do that.”