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Sunday 19 August 2018

Mike Ross Diary: It’s going to take a huge effort

THURSDAY - We were up early on Thursday morning to leave Queenstown. The beautiful sunny mornings of the past few days had given way to a dismal drizzle, with a bit of a gusting wind thrown in.

Getting on the plane to New Plymouth introduced a novelty – straight onto the aircraft without |having to do the whole metal detector song and dance! Since the bags had already been checked through the night before, it was the least hassle I've ever had boarding a flight.

The trip up to New Plymouth took about two hours, and we landed to even worse weather than we left. The rain was coming in horizontally as we walked down the steps and bolted to the terminal. Once again there was a great welcome for us, the support has really been phenomenal on the trip.

Similar to Queenstown, we had another Maori welcome, or powhiri. The welcome took place in a huge, ornately carved wooden hall, and the local schoolchildren were on hand to serenade us with a traditional song, and, of course, the haka!

After the welcome, we got back on the bus and made the short trip to the Devon Hotel, our base of operations in New Plymouth. Today was a down day, so a few of us went into town to see what coffee shops could be found.

The town was all decked out in various teams' colours. Wales seemed to predominate, but there was also a few Irish flags to be seen fluttering (oddly, mostly over bars...).

FRIDAY

Friday dawned sunny but windy, and we went for training at New Plymouth Boys High School, scrum coach Greg Feek's alma mater.

The pitch was pretty impressive, it looked like it had been gouged out of the ground as it was surrounded by steep terraces on three sides.

Training went pretty well, the lineout session was spot on with hardly a ball being missed and the defence and patterns parts of training were good. In the evening, I went and had a look at some more scrum footage to see if I could pick anything else out.

I played against the likely starting loosehead, Mike McDonald, a few times while I was in the Premiership over in England, and always found him a tough competitor.

It was about 9am Irish time when |I finished, so I called Kim, my wife, on Skype. One problem we've found in New Zealand is that the broadband |in the hotels can be pretty unreliable, so it can be difficult to get a steady connection.

Thankfully, I found one network that wasn't already getting hammered by the lads, so we could have a good video chat. It's quite difficult for a lot of guys with young families to be

away from them for up to two months, and I'm no exception.

We really wouldn't be able to do it without the phenomenal help and support offered by our wives and partners. Rugby players can be quite selfish at times, unfortunately we have to be.

We need to make sure that we get enough sleep before games, that our diet is right, that any niggles get looked after. Kim's been absolutely brilliant with regards to this – doing things like making sure I get a full night’s sleep before a game – no matter how much Kevin, our seven-

month-old, wakes up with teething pains.

She's had to put her career, as a medical scientist, on hold too as I've uprooted us quite a bit, moving from Cork to London, and back again to Dublin, but she's never complained.

She understands and appreciates that I'm getting to do something lots of people will never get to do, being employed to play a sport I love.

SATURDAY

On Saturday we had the captain's run at Taranaki Stadium. This is just a light run out to go through, one more time, the moves and setpiece plays that we'll be using at the weekend.

Afterwards, we had the afternoon off, and a lot of the lads went for another stroll about town. The nerves were starting to build with a lot of us, and even though we were playing a nation 10-odd places below us in the world rankings, it was still a World Cup match, and the first for many of us, including me.

We had a team meeting that evening and Drico handed out the match jersey to each of us, with Ronan O’Gara presenting Drico with his own jersey.

SUNDAY

Game day, and the rain was rattling off the windows. I slept in until about 10am, then got up and had some breakfast. Afterwards I went back to bed and napped for a couple hours,

until it was time to go out for a final walkthrough.

Afterwards we had our pre-match meal – this generally consists of spaghetti bolognaise or chicken and potato, with an option of porridge for those who prefer it.

The rain still hadn't let up when we got on the bus, great sheeting gusts coming in from the ocean.

We'd planned for the weather to |be bad though, tweaking our lineout by adding more options towards |the front.

Going out for the warm-up, the rain finally abated. The anthems came, and you could see the Americans were visibly emotional – the entire squad had earlier gone to a September 11 memorial service.

The game itself was a frustrating one. Our set-pieces were very good and I was pleased in particular with the way the scrum went.

However, we struggled to score off a lot of our dominance, the wet pitch and greasy ball not helping things, although passes didn't stick that normally would have.

It was particularly galling off the 5m scrum near the end to have it squirt out the side just as we started to move forward into what I was confident was the fourth try. Sod's Law in action if ever I saw it.

You have to give credit to the States, their defence was very physical and aggressive and they certainly are not an easy side to play against.

They've been handed a tough assignment – Russia – next, which would be a tough ask for a bigger team, never mind one with their |limited resources.

I'll confess to a small conflict of interest here. I actually have a US passport through my mother (born in Illinois) and I followed in my old

man's footsteps and married a |Connecticut Yankee, so I could have ended up in blue on Sunday had |circumstances turned out differently.

MONDAY

No change to the weather, so it was with gratitude we lifted off from New Plymouth airport for purportedly sunnier and warmer Auckland.

I hadn't slept particularly well the night before, it's always the same after games. The combination of late kick-off, caffeine and your mind racing from playing the game itself wreaks havoc with your sleep patterns, and it was about 3am before I fell asleep.

We're staying at the Waipuna Hotel for the week, it's about 10km from the city centre. The day after a game is always a down day, and we headed into town in the evening to check out the local scenery.

Geordan Murphy booked us into Wildfire, a Brazilian restaurant on the picturesque Auckland waterfront that promised endless amounts of barbecued meat, something we certainly put to the test!

Some of the boys went for a wander afterwards, but I was already suffering from the lack of sleep from the night before, so myself, Tom Court and Ronan O'Gara hopped into a taxi and went back to the hotel.

TUESDAY

We trained an hour later than usual, at 10am instead of 9. The extra hour of sleep was pretty welcome.

There's a feeling in the camp that I recognise and welcome, it's the same mixture of nervousness and eagerness that you get the weekend of big European Cup matches.

We know we didn't play particularly well against the States, and we know we can't repeat the same per

formance against the Australians.

I've never played against a Southern Hemisphere team before, and I know they'll present a challenge different in a few ways from Northern Hemisphere teams.

Will Genia and Quade Cooper have been on fire for both the Reds and Australia, so we'll need to be watching those boys all day.

Their scrum isn't the weakness it used to be either, there's been a lot |of articles in the media about how they've worked on it and, watching the Italian game, they surprised the Italians a few times.

It's definitely going to take a huge performance to beat them, but I know it's in us, it's only a question of bringing it out.

If we can do that, then I think Saturday will be a day to remember.

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