“I lost 26kgs going from the farm to Franklin’s Gardens” - Saints hooker Ross McMillan opens up

TELLING HIS TALE - Ross McMillan (Picture: Linda Dawson)
TELLING HIS TALE - Ross McMillan (Picture: Linda Dawson)

Ross McMillan has a story that can serve as inspiration to any rugby player who is currently down on their luck.

From working on a farm in the early hours of the morning before going to training, to dealing with more serious off-pitch issues, McMillan’s experiences have steeled him for the Premiership battle.

And having started Saints’ past two games, impressing in the narrow defeat at Saracens and in the win against London Irish last weekend, he is making a name for himself at the top level.

This week, the Chron caught up with the amiable forward, who will make his third successive start when he lines up against Harlequins on Friday, as he tells his story in an open and honest interview.

So, Ross, you made your first Premiership start at Saracens recently and were in the first 15 again last weekend. How has it felt breaking into the first-team picture?

“It’s always nice starting. It was massive at Saracens, getting that first start in the Premiership, but last week being at home and walking into that changing room was huge.

“You’ve got all the names of the senior players that have been honoured in the plaques in our dressing room and the numbers above you.

“I’ve sat in the 16 shirt so many times and looked over at the hooker position and always felt a bit envious of people in that position.

“I’ve done my three years of apprenticeship and I’ve always felt I’ve worked hard enough to push myself and play in that No.2 shirt.

“When I saw my name on the shirt, hanging in the No.2 spot, I was extremely proud and honoured.”

And just how comfortable are you feeling in that starting shirt now?

“I feel like I could play for the first team every week. Whether I’m playing for the Wanderers, against Saracens in the Premiership or against Quins in the Amlin challenge Cup semi-final, this group and this system gives you the confidence to do that.

“You’re involved in that environment every week, whether you’re in the 23 or in the Wanderers.

“We all know what’s going on and people can step up. My role has been as third choice, travelling around with the squad so I understand the systems and the players and it’s up to me to be able to slip straight in. Hopefully I’ve done that.

“It’s been good for the past few weeks playing 80 minutes and I’ve enjoyed it.

“I’ve tried to add a bit to my game, push on a bit more and add a bit to my set piece. I’ve been enjoying it.”

As you mentioned earlier, you’ve been at Saints for a few years now. Just tell us a bit about life before your move to Franklin’s Gardens...

“I joined Gloucester as a youngster and pushing on there was fantastic, but I didn’t really take my opportunity. It’s always in the back of my mind that I didn’t take that chance.

“I dropped down into National League rugby and anyone who’s ever played in that environment understands the harsh reality of what it can be like.

“Some weeks you’ll be winning 55-0 and other weeks you’ll be having your head shoved up your bum and going back at a rate of knots.

“It’s a competitive league and a great league and sometimes it gets bad press, which I don’t think is deserved. There’s a lot of Championship players who can play in the Premiership.

“It’s about opportunity and I hope I’ve taken my opportunity. I believe I have while I’ve been here.

“When I turned up I wasn’t in the greatest of shape and was probably a bit one dimensional. Sometimes Nobby (Dorian West) will have a screaming fit at me because I’ve gone back into my plodding state and going through the motions, but I’m enjoying it.

“I’m enjoying playing every week at the top level and I want to push on a bit more to see where this journey can take me.”

You say you weren’t in the best of shape when you arrived at Saints; how much work have you had to do to get to where you are now?

“Originally I lost 26kgs within the first pre-season I came. I joined halfway through the end of one season and managed to feel my way through that year.

“I came back in the following pre-season three weeks before everyone else and just ran.

“I addressed a few diet issues because when you’re working while playing in the Championship sometimes you’ve just got to grab what you can and eat what you can in the car up there.

“The last thing you’re thinking about is how many calories you’ve had and it’s a needs must situation.

“Here we get looked after and I dropped as much fat as I could before slowly building my way up to a weight I felt comfortable playing at.

“We’ve got an unbelievable conditioning team here and every need is catered for.

“Some lads are fortunate that they’ve never dropped out of a Premiership environment and I’ve said to some of the Academy lads that they should be grateful for what they’ve got because when you’re ringing around on a Sunday evening trying to find a chiropractor after playing in the Championship and your club doesn’t even have a physio, you realise how good it is just to turn up here the day after and you’ve got four or five physios who can help you.

“It’s about staying grounded and being humble really.”

You were working while you were in the Championship. What kind of jobs did you do?

“I did bits and pieces of everything, farming mainly. I was working for a very nice family and we were doing beef and sheep farming.

“I was getting up at five in the morning and helping my wife milk cows and scraping out cows after what they do overnight. If anyone’s been involved in farming and knows what cows do overnight, your fingers stick to every gate and you’re trying to get the little tractor going. You’ve got the hassle of sliding into the slurry pit because your brakes aren’t working.

“Then you’ve got to get to training and you feel like you’ve done a shift already. It’s that kind of experience really.”

You’ve had other tough times off the pitch, too. Tell us more about the charity work you’ve been doing and how it came about...

“It came about from the birth of my daughter, Frankie, who was born with Gastroschisis, which basically means she was born with some of her organs outside of her body.

“It’s a condition that not many people have direct contact with and I didn’t know much about it before Frankie was born.

“When she was born she was operated on and she was obviously in hospital for a long time down in Bristol.

“The distance between Bristol and where we were living was quite big and my wife wanted to be there as much as she could and I was up here.

“The club were good because they gave me a Range Rover, I chucked a mattress in the back and took myself off to Bristol after training most days.

“I’d just get my head down for a couple of hours before I came back to training the next morning.

“Down in Bristol we were looked after by a charity organisation called Ronald McDonald Trust Houses and it’s a fantastic organisation that looks after the parents and other siblings of children in an intensive care environment.

“When you’re in that environment, it is horrible and my heart goes out to anyone who’s been in intensive care with a child.

“There’s apparatus all around that’s going ‘bing, bong, bing, bong’ and the sound of that noise goes off and you look up to see if it’s your child.

“The relief comes over when it isn’t, but at the same time you’re in a small room with about five or six other parents and you realise it’s one of their children. The environment is tough.

“What the Ronald McDonald Trust do is take all the stress of food and accommodation away and they provide a room and a bed that’s yours as long as you need it.

“While we were there over Christmas a couple of years ago, we had dinners laid on, food parcels and that’s donated by different groups and charities.

“Since then we’ve done quite a bit of fundraising and the lads here have taken it on board as well. The lads have really backed that as well as other charity work I’ve done, so much so that I’ve got a badge on my shoulder that is the Children’s Protection Agency and it’s just a little thing the lads did for me and something I wear with pride.”

“Next Tuesday at Cineworld we’re doing a night where we’ll all be there and people can come along and watch a film with the Saints.

“We’ll be selling popcorn and having a chat with anyone who wants to come along. Again we’re giving the funds to Ronald McDonald Trust Houses and it’s something that is personal to us because the lads understand what I went through and it’s something they’ve really got behind emotionally.”

Thankfully, McMillan’s daughter pulled through - “she’s running around causing havoc and telling daddy to be quiet while she’s watching films” – and he has had another since.

And with his personal life starting to follow an upward curve, the loquacious hooker is now keen to make sure his rugby career continues on a similar path.