Leinster like flankers high, wide and Elsom Rocky Elsom

 

HEINEKEN CUP LEINSTER v CASTRES:  Gerry Thornleycatches up with Leinster's latest Aussie import. Big, strong and fast, last week's try against the Dragons was his third in four games. Throw in exceptional line-out skill and it's clear Leinster have struck gold

AT FIRST glance, you'd think Rocky Elsom has a new home befitting one of the global game's stellar backrowers. Set in leafy Ballsbridge, Elsom lives in an modernistic, hideaway mews-style apartment. Outside is a Porsche, but then you notice the more modest Leinster-sponsored car in the driveway. Far from ostentatious, in fact he likes to keep things simple.

The trendy apartment belongs to an Aussie mate, Peter, and at the moment Elsom's girlfriend, Louise, is also in Dublin. She's baked some very tasty muffins, which Elsom offers and chews away over a cool coffee table, with a plasma screen set up on the wall.

He's settled in well. He enjoys looking at buildings that are over 100 years old and one of the advantages of living in Ballsbridge until he acquires his own place is its close proximity to Leinster's bases in the RDS and Riverview.

"It's easy for me to get around. I hate traffic - everyone does - but I get lost a lot. Even in Sydney I used to live the same distance from training as from here to the RDS."

On foot of forgetfully missing the start of a few training sessions, Michael Cheika joked that Elsom and Malcolm O'Kelly had finally found their twin brothers.

"After a couple of weeks Mal said to me I was taking a lot of the heat off him," admits Elsom.

Australia and Ireland being pitted against each other also led to some good-natured banter, given the sizeable Aussie contingent in Leinster and during the week Jamie Heaslip joked, "We better make sure he only goes back on one leg".

Not a bad idea, but Elsom raises his eyebrows at notions in some sections of the Australian media that they have landed a dream draw. "No-one really has a dream draw," he reasons, citing the Wallabies' quarter-final last year with England and South Africa nearly coming a cropper on the same weekend against Fiji.

His watching brief in November must have done his body no harm. His year has been pretty much non-stop, helping the Waratahs to a Super 14 final defeat away to the Crusaders at the end of May, and then stepping straight into the international season.

"The first couple of weeks I came over I was really busted," he admits. Following on from a Tri-Nations shoot-out in Brisbane against the All Blacks - the Wallabies led 17-7 early in the second half before succumbing 28-24 to a Dan Carter-inspired comeback - within two weeks he was making his Leinster debut in the 18-0 defeat to Munster.

A typically laid-back Aussie, he is nonetheless driven. Now 25 and blessed with an exceptional combination of a 6ft 5in, near 17-stone frame which can fairly shift, there can't be many more dynamic backrowers around.

Last week's try against the Dragons was his third in his last four games. Throw in an exceptional line-out performer, and it's clear that Leinster have struck Aussie gold.

"He's a massive bloke," says Whitaker of his ex-Waratahs and current Wallabies team-mate. "When you get to sit next him you realise that not only is he tall, he's a big unit, and he's very quick and very athletic."

He's also detected a more self-confident player, now inclined to put his opinions forward.

"He's different," laughs Whitaker. "He's a bit of a thinker. He can seem a little bit vague but that's because he thinks about things. He was always a bit of a free spirit, but then when you get to know him you realise there's a lot more to him. Like, at training, he's big on organising line-outs, on video work and a lot of behind the scenes stuff."

Elsom rationalises his attention to detail thus: "A lot of rugby is about going with what you think and having the option to play what you see, and giving the guys the skills so they can do that better, except for in a set-piece. That is a lot more black and white, and any side that does well in the Heineken Cup needs to be rock solid in the set-pieces."

While he admits to having a temper, he reckons he's fairly controlled about it. His tough baptism in Irish rugby continued with another internecine derby defeat in which he was sinbinned for a retaliatory punch on Mike McCarthy after the latter butted him. It appeared just as well team-mates had been on hand to restrain Elsom.

In 2006 he was banned for four games for fighting against the Bulls in Pretoria. He'll stand his ground, but tries to be rational about it for he knows such a stance can be counter-productive.

"If you think you're a good player and someone who is niggling you is not a good player and then you get in a punch-up with him and you both go off, well then, who wins?"

But pointing to the Connacht game, he quips: "He got sent-off and I only got ten minutes."

At this juncture, it's perhaps worth pointing out Rocky is actually his real name, following on from Kelly, Robert, Sam and Dusty, with Rory his younger sibling.

Growing up as one of five boys in the Melbourne suburbs he was initially exposed to Aussie Rules. His parents, Vicky and Russell, retired and moved to Noosa on the Sunshine Coast in Brisbane when Elsom was 10. A beautiful, if small and isolated coastal resort town, it's set amongst eucalyptus trees and lush foliage, with miles of golden sand and clear blue sea.

Rugby league was the local sport but Elsom inadvertently instigated a career in union when demanding to go to boarding school. "I think I'd seen Toy Soldiers or something and I just thought it would be great - doing anything you wanted. And it was good fun. So my brothers and my mother needed convincing. But Sam went one year, and loved it, and then we all went the following year."

Nudgee College is a noted rugby union school. Ironically, the Munster coach, Tony McGahan - aka Dumper or "Symbols" as he was also known at the time - was his PE coach at Nudgee.

"He was really good and we had a sharp backline. He's also a very funny guy. I don't know him very well but he has a super sense of humour," recalls Elsom, "and no-one will say a bad word about him; a bit like Whits (Chris Whitaker)."

Within a year Elsom was playing for the Australian Under-16s. A natural? Not the way he describes it. "If I knew how bad I was when I started I probably wouldn't have played. Because when you're playing rugby league it's totally different. But I was lucky the coach at the time wanted things to be done a certain way, and he used to make the other guys stay around to make sure I was doing it properly."

He played one game for Australia schools against the Irish schools, including Shane Jennings, in Brisbane in 2000, before joining the Sydney-based Canterbury Bulldogs rugby league side for two years. Elsom says it was the making of him, "not from a skills point of view or even a physical point of view, because when I came out from there I was pretty busted and had a lot of injuries, but the training was very, very hard and I think it prepared for me for what I was going into (with the Waratahs)."

Bob Dwyer was the coach when Elsom joined the Waratahs, and he became a regular in his rookie year. He liked Dwyer, especially his motivational skills.

"He used to have a lot of analogies and they used to strike a bit of a chord with me, because I can still remember them and that's not something you get often. A lot of times you have coaches who speak to you before games and five minutes later you can't remember anything they said."

For his first couple of years at the Waratahs he was troubled by a severe hamstring problem which he likens to overcooked, soaked pasta as opposed to al dente. "I was doing quite well but fell out of favour with "Link", Euan McKenzie. I'd played about the first five games but then played the rest of the season off the bench, which was not where I wanted to be. I was ****ing livid," he says, smiling, "I was absolutely filthy."

At times he didn't make the 32-man squad, which "means you're on the chopping block." Ahead in the backrow pecking order were Phil Waugh, David Lyons, Stephen Hoiles and Wycliff Palu, but he was then granted his second start of the year away to the Highlanders, who were on a nine-game winning run, in Dunedin, partly he says, because they knew he was going to leave.

"I had one of my best games ever, and then we beat Queensland the next week to make the semis, beat the Bulls but lost the final to the Crusaders in Canterbury."

That Otago game was the turning point in his career. "If I hadn't played well I wouldn't have played for the Wallabies, in fact I was probably leaving the club."

Instead, he was called into the Wallabies squad. In one week, Waugh, Hoiles and John Roe and all went down injured. "So I went in to starting (scoring a try against Samoa), from wherever I was, then started the rest of the games that year and started every game since, barring a couple through injury."

Elsom was recently voted the winner of the inaugural Choice Australia Award. Selected by the public, he polled over twice as many votes as the other players combined. However, two Super 14 final defeats, three near misses in the Tri-Nations, and last year's World Cup quarter-final defeat to England have left this driven player somewhat unfulfilled.

"I think it's worse coming from Australia, too, because you honestly feel you should win all those games going into those matches."

Elsom admits Leinster made him an offer he couldn't refuse. It also helped they were flexible, offering him a one-year deal - believed to be worth in the region of €400,000 - and an option of a second. He also knew Cheika and liked what he saw of Leinster on television.

"They like to win with tries, which is not saying I wouldn't go to a side that wouldn't, but that's the way I would think I would fit in best."

John O'Neill has been regularly presenting Elsom's return to Australia as a done deal, and while that is perhaps the likelier outcome, it is perhaps not helpful to the Wallabies. You sense Elsom is not a man to back into a corner.

"I've definitely got some thinking to do, and it's hard to say at this stage. If February comes around and I say 'look, I definitely would like to stay' then I'm sure we could talk about it. But they're pretty pro-active with their recruiting here, which is why they get so many good players."

Himself, though he'd be the last to say it, being a true case in point.

ROCKY ELSOM

Birth:Feb 14th, 1983 (Melbourne)

Height:1.96m (6ft 5in)

Weight:106kg (16st 9lb)

Position:Flanker

Honours: Australia (40 caps)

School: Nudgee College, Brisbane

Australia Caps:40 (2005 - )

Australia Points:35 (7 tries)

NSW Waratahs Caps:66 (10 tries)

Other Honours:Australia A, Australia Schools, Australia Under-16

Leinster:6 games (3 tries).