Mike Ross has been a regular in his rugby position in the front row for both club and country. He may have hung up his boots but his experience of playing prop at the very top level of the game has given him a wealth of knowledge of the scrum’s ‘dark arts’.
I spoke to Mike for Rugby Revealed and he shared his thoughts on the key skills required for this physically demanding rugby position and what it takes to be part of the front row union.
— Independent Rugby (@IndoRugby) April 28, 2017
Why did you choose to play prop?
I didn’t initially choose to play prop, it was just a by product of being the big, slow kid when I was underage! As time went on I grew to love the position, I found I had a natural affinity for scrummaging. I like the physical confrontation part of it, it’s either push or be pushed, and there’s no hiding place.
What are the most important key skills that are required to play prop?
First of all, you need to be strong, both in body and mind. Squats and deadlifts are the core lifts for a prop, so focus on those, and have impeccable technique. You have to be stubborn; since the new laws came in a lot of scrummaging contests come down to who blinks first when the pressure comes on.
Know your role in every phase of play, whether you’re required at the first ruck off a lineout or carrying around the corner. Keep your head up in defence, a lot of teams will target the front row in open play, so try not to get isolated.
Work on your rucking skills, make sure you target any threats to the ball carrier and take them past the ruck, ensuring clean ball for your scrum half.
At lineout time, always look after the man you’re lifting. You put him up there, put him back down. I’ve seen a few long term injuries from not doing this.
Finally, you’re there to scrummage, not to run around, that’s a bonus. Get that part of your game right and you’ll always be in demand. Keep your hips low, back flat and a strong bind. Having your legs back at 120 degrees from your body is the optimum pushing position, so always work to have your feet back sufficiently at the engagement.
How does the role of loose head differ to tight head?
First of all, it’s slightly more awkward. A tight head has a slot to put his head into where both his shoulders are supported, the loose head doesn’t and is really reliant on his bind to stop the scrum going down.
The loose head has a more destructive role in scrummaging. On opposition put in, he tries to destabilise the opposition tight head – since one shoulder is free, he has more freedom to vary his angle of attack. If he can get the tight head going back, it makes it very hard for the hooker to get a good strike.
Can you outline your role around the pitch in attack and defence?
Usually in attack your main role is to clear out rucks for the initial first few phases. After this you’ll find that your opportunity to get on the ball will come, and when it does you make sure you run hard and square and look after the ball at all costs.
In defence you will generally be the first or second defender out from the ruck, so you’ll be needed to stop any pick and goes around the side of the ruck or to smash any one out runners or if the scrum half tries to have a go. Outside backs will be quicker and nimbler than you nine times out of ten, so if you’re out in the midfield make sure you stick with the defensive line and swap in closer to the ruck if there’s time.
Can you describe your technique for scrummaging?
I try to have the same setup before every scrum, feet shoulder width apart, split stance, with my left foot back where I want it to be on the engagement. I make sure my left arm is bound on the hooker’s shorts or shirt (depending on the width of the hooker!) and my left shoulder is pulled out from under his armpit and my head is ahead of the loosehead’s.
On the “crouch” command I sink my hips down, and on the “bind” I move my right foot back parallel to my left and sink down further. On the “engage” I bind on the back and launch forward, dropping my chest down and through, and trying not to move my feet except to go forward.
How do you prepare for the scrum?
I mentally prepare for a scrum by following my setup routine and making sure I’m happy with my feet placement and distance of engagement. After that, I take a deep breath, hold it, and wait to get out of the blocks as quickly as possible at the set call, keeping good form all the way through, and trying to impact as hard as I can.
You listed lifting in the lineout as a key skill for your position, can you describe your technique for lifting?
Keep your focus on where you’re going to be lifting. If you’re lifting from behind, lift just under the glutes. If lifting from the front, you ideally want to lift on the muscles above the kneecap, or on the lifting pad. Drop your hips prior to the lift, and explode upwards like you’re doing a pushpress, allowing your legs and glutes to assist you in the lift. Once there, keep locked at full extension for at least two to three seconds, and step forward towards your other lifter to attain maximum height in your lift. Once the ball is caught, bring your jumper down in a controlled fashion.
What was the best advice you received that helped you develop into the player you are?
You don’t have to be talented to work hard. I’ve seen many players over the years who had all the talent in the world, but never put the work in.
What makes a good prop a great prop? Which player do you think of and why?
I suppose a healthy disregard for their personal safety, great consistent scrum technique and a large dose of aggression. One player that comes to mind is Cian Healy. He always goes into games full bore, and is very much the modern prop – freakishly strong, powerful, and very good with the ball in hand (for which he should be stripped of his membership of the front row union!)
Gavin Hickie, USA Rugby Collegiate All-Americans Forwards Coach, is a former Ireland A & 7s, Leinster and Leicester rugby player now Head Coach of Dartmouth Rugby. He writes for RugbyToday.com and other publications when not coaching and blogging on lineoutcoach.com