All Blacks: Hero to zero in just a season

By Dylan Cleaver

Isaac Ross has to work on his list of 'work-ons' to regain an All Blacks jersey, say observers. Photo / Getty Images
Isaac Ross has to work on his list of 'work-ons' to regain an All Blacks jersey, say observers. Photo / Getty Images

He doesn't work hard enough, he doesn't push in scrums, he spends too much time in the backs, he has tickets on himself.

Isaac Ross' decline has been as perplexing as it was precipitous, but one of the coaches who snubbed him this year believes he is returning to his best form.

Jamie Joseph, who was one of a string of coaches who seemed immune to Ross' charms earlier this year while in charge of the Maori squad, says the 25-year-old's national provincial championship form indicates the All Blacks selectors' messages are getting through.

While Ross shaped as the classic "the faster you rise, the steeper you fall" case study, it seems there is no smoking gun behind his demotion - just a bunch of "work-ons" that have yet to be worked on and a coaching fraternity that had begun to wonder whether the player really gets what top-level rugby is all about.

"It's sort of just the thought of one person and now everyone thinks my s*** stinks, basically," Ross said in the lead-up to the ITM Cup campaign with Canterbury.

According to the same report, he was even considering his future in the game after "everyone turned their back on me".

If that sounds churlish and immature, it was borne out of frustration, according to a Canterbury insider who said Ross at that stage was sick of talking about falling stock. Still, it wasn't well received by those who count.

"Isaac knows clearly what he has to do," lamented All Blacks forwards coach Steve Hansen recently. "I think everyone that has watched Isaac play knows what Isaac has got to do. And Isaac really needs to understand that the only person that can fix Isaac's problems is Isaac."

According to leading sports psychologist Dave Hadfield, it comes down to one fairly simple "change model" and another inescapable truth: the selector is always right.

Hadfield said he had no inside knowledge of what was happening around Ross, but referred to a model known as ADKAR - awareness, desire, knowledge, ability and resources.

"If you're being told you need to change, the first thing you need is the awareness that you need to change. If you don't agree with that, you're never going to change," Hadfield said. "The desire to change, the knowledge, ability and resources to The rise and fall of Isaac Ross: once-touted lock holds key to his future

effect that change become irrelevant if you're stuck on awareness.

"At the end of the day the selectors are always right. In this case, if you want to play for that team, Hansen is God. You've got two choices: you say, 'Yes, he's got a point', or you fight it, you disagree with them."

Turn the clock back a year and the script was playing out differently.

Ross was seen as the future of locking: rangy, agile, with a skill-set most five-eighths would envy. The Crusader was on a fast track to fame.

In June last year he made his debut against France at Dunedin.While that match ended in ignominy, Ross' reputation was enhanced.

The graph seemed to keep charting upwards, even though the All Blacks were having a difficult Tri-Nations campaign that reached its nadir with a 32-29 loss to the Springboks in Hamilton.

This was to be Ross' last test of the year and, unless he can engineer a reversal of fortune as quickly as the last one, it is not beyond the realms of possibility it could end up being the eighth and last of his career.

"We just think he has played a lot of football. He is probably mentally being stretched continually every week and, as I said, we are delighted with him and he is a lot further on than I thought he would be," said Graham Henry at the time of his exclusion from the final Tri-Nations' test of 2009 - a 33-6 victory over Australia at the Cake Tin.

So when people look for answers to what happened to Ross, they would be just as well served to look what happened during that test.

Tom Donnelly and Brad Thorn were paired together in the second row and the panel liked what they saw.

By comparison, Ross' game looked loose and luxurious. Grunt and graft became de rigueur.

So Ross joined a long list of those tried in the second row under Henry's reign. Since he took over in 2004 only Thorn, Ali Williams, Chris Jack and possibly Donnelly can claim to have taken a firm grip of jersey numbers 4 and 5.

Ross has joined an inclusive club comprising Greg Rawlinson, Troy Flavell, James Ryan, Simon Maling, Angus Macdonald, Kevin O'Neill, Jason Eaton, Anthony Boric, Sam Whitelock, Bryn Evans, Keith Robinson, Ross Filipo, Norm Maxwell, Jono Gibbes and Reuben Thorne.

What makes Ross different is that (a) no one saw it coming and (b) it didn't stop at the All Blacks.

Todd Blackadder dropped him from the Crusaders and then Joseph could not find a place for him in his starting XV for the Maori centenary tests against Ireland and England.

There were mitigating factors, said Joseph.

"He was underdone because he'd been basically playing club rugby for the past seven weeks," Joseph said of his decision to prefer Highlander Hayden Triggs and converted blindside flanker Jarrad Hoeata.

Joseph also spotted something else, though. Behind the self-assured facade, there was a player who had lost confidence.

"You wouldn't sit down with him for a cup of tea and a biscuit and say he lacked confidence. But he lacked what I would define as rugby confidence.

"The basis of that was being discarded from the All Blacks, then discarded from the Crusaders with similar feedback."

While Joseph left Ross out of his side, he has few doubts that Ross will eventually make it back.

"The thing with Zac is that he has a set of skills that not many other locks have, as you saw last week against Manawatu.

"From a forwards' perspective, he was the biggest reason Canterbury came back to win that game, so he's starting to get back to his best form."

Whether that's enough to earn an international recall is a moot point.

"The lock position has changed," Joseph said, noting that Ross' lineout understanding and athleticism remained impressive.

"That's just part of the set-piece, the other part is scrummaging. Clearly at international level you need guys with the power to try to control teams - that's an area he's been told he needs to work on."

Joseph is winging his way to Dunedin to helm the struggling Highlanders. To ask a loaded question: would he look forward to working with Ross if the player decided he needed to move from the Crusaders to get more game time?

"I tell you this, if Isaac Ross continues to play like he did against Manawatu, and recaptures the form of last year, he'll be selected for the Crusaders, not the Highlanders," Joseph said, before signing off with what is now becoming a familiar refrain. "It's really all up to him."

- NZ Herald

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