While they are struggling in the Top 14, reigning champs Stade Francais are hoping to upset the Welford Road faithful says Stade Francais No 8 Jono Ross
From Blue Bull to Paris pink, South Africa loose forward Jono Ross recently signed a new deal with Stade Francais that will keep him at the club until 2020, having initially arrived in the French capital in 2014 as a medical joker for David Lyons. On the eve of their trip to Leicester to tackle the Tigers in the Champions Cup quarter-final clash, the 25-year-old Ross spoke to Rugby World about what’s gone wrong with the Top 14 champions this season and what hope they have of causing an upset at Welford Road.
Rugby World: Was it an easy decision to extend your Stade Francais contract?
Jono Ross: Yes. I’m really happy at the club. I’ve found a place where I can be myself and I think that in the last 18 months I’ve played the best rugby of my life.
RW: Did any South Africans sides express an interest in bringing you home?
JR: I didn’t have any offers from South Africa. I had some interest from clubs in the UK, and being English qualified I took that into consideration, but I’m really happy with the set-up at Stade Francais.
RW: What’s your English connection?
JR: My grandmother is English, but obviously at the moment England have a really good back-row and for me it would be difficult to go somewhere in the hope that maybe I would get a cap.
RW: Why have you played your best rugby since arriving in France?
JR: When Gonzalo Quesada [Stade Francais director of rugby] contacted me I felt really wanted. He liked me as a player and gave me the freedom and confidence to play as I want to do. That’s been key for me, and it feels like I’ve found a rhythm and a home here in Paris.
RW: How do you find the anonymity of Paris compared to Pretoria?
JR: I left the Bulls in a difficult circumstances because I was under a lot of pressure and taking lot of flak during the time I was captain. Pretoria is small place, rugby mad, and to be honest coming to Paris has been a breath of fresh air. I can go out with my girlfriend to a coffee shop without being noticed, and there’s also the opportunities to go travelling within Europe. We love Paris, particularly at this time of year.
RW: How do explain Stade Francais going from champions last season to relegation contenders this year?
JR: The World Cup was difficult for the club. We won just one game in that period, which was a bang to our confidence, and we’ve struggled ever since. Then we lost more key players during the Six Nations. But they shouldn’t be used as excuses. At the end of the day the fault lies we us, the players, because we just haven’t been good enough.
RW: Why have Stade Francais performed better in the Champions Cup this season?
JR: Most of us hadn’t played in the competition so qualifying for the Champions Cup was a massive achievement for a lot of players. The guys have been very worked up for each match. I wouldn’t say we feel under less pressure than we do in the Top 14 but obviously relegation has been in the backs of our minds and maybe our confidence has been lower in the league.
RW: How do you assess Leicester?
JR: They’re an all-round quality side. They have a great set-piece with Dan Cole and Marcos Ayerza really good at scrum time, and their line-out functions well. They also have good ball players in the backline who can score good tries. One guy there [in the Leicester squad] is a good friend of mine, Mike Williams, and so I know it’s a tough place to be a part of it and that helps them a lot come game-time because they’re a tough side to play against.
RW: One of the tries of this season’s Champions Cup was scored by 20-year-old Stade flanker Sekou Macalou. How do you rate him?
JR: He’s a massive talent, as he showed with that wonderful try against Munster. He’s still a bit raw and has a lot to learn…but he has all the attributes to be a world-class player and some of his scores in the gym are through the roof. But it’s now up to him to put his head down, work really hard and learn off some of the world-class loose forwards we have at Stade Francais, like Sergio Parisse, Antoine Burban and Willem Alberts.
RW: Have you been picking the brains of Sergio and the other international players?
JR:Yes. It’s been great to mix with all of these guys, share different views and ideas, and learn from each other. We have different strengths and weaknesses but by pooling our resources we can bring out the best in each other and that’s only going to be beneficial to the club.
RW: Do you still dream of playing for the Springboks?
JR: Like most boys growing up in South Africa I dreamt of playing for the Boks but when I came to France I left those dreams behind. Now I just try and perform every week for Stade and make the most of living in Paris.
RW: For once Leicester Tigers have been overshadowed by the city’s football team. Do you know why?
JR: Yes, I follow the Premier League. I’ve actually been to watch a few games, including Chelsea and Manchester United. It’s amazing what Leicester have done in the space of 12 months, from being threatened with relegation to where they are now. No one can really explain it but I think it’s always great in professional sport to see an underdog doing well.
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