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'It's not all about driving over and winning penalties' Mike Ross ready for French scrum power

Ross and Cian Healy are ready for Ireland’s biggest scrum battle of 2015.

Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Rory Keane reports from Celtic Manor 

MIKE ROSS AND Cian Healy will be central to Ireland’s chances on Sunday.

The Leinster pair are set to anchor the scrum with the French entourage of Rabah Slimani, Eddy Ben Arous, Uini Atonio and Vincent Debaty primed to attack them at the coal-face. The fact that Nicolas Mas might miss out on the matchday squad altogether tells you all you need to know about the health of France’s propping stocks at present.

There is no better man to meet the challenge than Ross. The Corkman has packed down against an arsenal of world class looseheads during his career. Tony Woodcock, Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawaira, Thomas Domingo, Marcos Ayerza and Gethin Jenkins are just some of the stellar names that have locked horns with Ross.

In France, he sees another huge test looming on the horizon.

“France have always prided themselves on their forward pack, they’ve had some great operators there in the past and the present bunch are no exception,” said the 35-year-old tighthead.

“You have Slimani and Mas; Mas is massively experienced and Slimani is the young kid on the block but he’s been very impressive for Stade Francais.

Rabah Slimani scores his sides opening try Slimani has also impressed in the loose, scoring two tries. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“They’ve got Eddy Ben Arous and Vincent Debaty, they’re offering a different option as well and they have two explosive hookers in Kayser and Guirado.

“Then you have some big old lumps behind them like Maestri and Pape, so they’ve got quality through their team and, if they’re on their game, they will be very, very difficult to deal with.”

Les Bleus are well stocked on both sides of the scrum; there is no question about that. Certainly, their three tightheads are all fearsome units. Healy has scrummaged against Slimani, Atonio and Mas in the past. So, what’s the difference between the trio?

“About 30 kilos I’d say!” Healy replied. “They’re all different techniques and sizes. Atonio is a big, heavy, strong scrummager. He’s a tough man to move.

“Mas is kind of compact and very technical… and Slimani is the cleverest one. So there’s a lot of different things you have to aspect into it.

“It’s not just go in and push against those lads. You’ve got to have your wits about you.”

The psychological warfare went up a notch yesterday with Racing 92 loosehead Ben Arous, rather mischievously, stating his intention to “hunt down” his former team-mate Jonathan Sexton as often as possible.

Jonathan Sexton and Mathieu Bastareaud Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Certainly, a stable scrum will allow Sean O’Brien and Co to get out quickly into the line and chop down the likes of Louis Picamoles and Mathieu Bastareaud at source.

On the other hand, if the Irish scrum can get the nudge on France, it will put Sexton and his fellow backs on the front foot.

“What we really want from our scrum is a solid base, a good way of delivering a solid platform for our backs,” said Ross.

“It’s not all about driving over and winning penalties, although it’s nice when it happens. But we have to be realistic and realise it’s not going to happen every scrum.

“First and foremost we want a solid, clean platform and if you look back at our games we’ve delivered that for the most part over the last three years or so.”

His propping partner-in-crime, Healy, was in full agreement: “They’ve a strong, dominant pack. And they are certainly going after teams, but that’s a similar mentality to ourselves. We’ve worked a lot on our scrum to be a dominant platform and to have a positive shape going forward in how our set-up is, right down to the last detail, even the ball at number eight.

“Whatever they’re doing, we’re armed well enough to go at it.”

There’s a school of thought that France aren’t very much bothered by the Six Nations these days with the gruelling Top 14 schedule taking its toll on the players. Four disappointing championships since their 2011 World Cup final loss against New Zealand would certainly add weight to that theory.

For this tournament, Philippe Saint-Andre has been afforded the time and access that he would never get during the Six Nations window. A pre-season trip to the Alps did wonders for team morale not to mention their fitness levels.

Phillipe Saint-Andre Source: James Crombie/INPHO

They have looked fit, focused, and, rather ominously, relaxed at their team base in the Vale Resort this week ahead of Sunday’s match.

“That’s a true point,” said Ross. “They would have had a better preparation phase, they’ve had three months together, they don’t have to go away and play the Top 14 so I think they’ll be better prepared.”

Big displays will be required from Ross and Healy in Cardiff. No doubt, Jack McGrath and Nathan White will be called upon at some stage in what promises to be a ferocious encounter.

Healy and McGrath have shared the load at loosehead for the past few seasons. Against Slimani, Atonio and the rest of the gnarly French frontrow, it may require big shifts from both on Sunday.

“Whatever way Joe decides to deal with us, we’re well sourced at [number] one,” Healy added. “Either of us can do a strong enough job and then the other one can have a big impact.”

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