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Leaving Ulster gave me a fresh start: Former flanker Neil McMillan on life in Texas



Former Ulster flanker Neil McMillan with wife Amy and son Kieran.

Former Ulster flanker Neil McMillan with wife Amy and son Kieran.

Former Ulster flanker Neil McMillan with wife Amy and son Kieran.

It was meant to be his first trip back in four years and an especially poignant visit too as Neil McMillan was going to bring eight-month-old son Kieran along.

Instead, the well-travelled former Ulster flanker is hunkered down at his home in Houston, Texas, with American wife Amy and their fairly new arrival only visible to his parents and extended family this side of the Atlantic thanks to the accessibility of technology.

The now 38-year-old, who played over 80 times for Ulster and was part of the Celtic League winning team of 2006 - the last time the province prised open their trophy cabinet - can do nothing but wait for the tide to turn on Covid-19 before making that special journey back to his parents' home in Killyleagh.

The former flanker, who left Ulster in 2008 after nearly a decade of injury-scarred service for spells at 'Bloodgate'-struck Harlequins and Sale Sharks before relocating to the States nine years ago, readily accepts that he is not alone in having plans wrecked by the pandemic.

Indeed his hoped-for holiday somewhat pales into insignificance when he explains having to recalibrate his job and the frighteningly grim situation surrounding his previous base in New York, where the couple have many friends.

"We were due back at the start of April to see my mum and dad and catch up with my three sisters and their kids," McMillan explains.

"My mum was over here just after Kieran was born in August last year, but my dad and sisters haven't met him.

"But, look, we'll get together again when all this is over."

He still closely follows Ulster from afar and had also planned to have a look around the Kingspan Stadium and check out the players' wall inside the stand at the Aquinas end.

His passion for the game and his home province has never diminished, which is why it still meant so much to see former team-mates Roger Wilson, who now lives in Dallas, and Andy Ward when all three put themselves about again for the Ireland side during last autumn's Classics World Cup in Bermuda.

In a way it just seemed like old times when he and Wilson, along with the now Singapore-based Neil Best, were the coming men in a mightily destructive Ulster back-row put together by Alan Solomons before then becoming, McMillan's horrible injury profile permitting, the more established break-away trio during Mark McCall's tenure.

"I always saw myself as an under-sized back row," he says with some modesty. "And you just threw yourself into stuff that got you injured."

"The thing about the injuries I had was that I never had repeat ones and always ended up hurting something different," he adds with typical good humour.


McMillan in Magners League action against the now-defunct Border Reivers.

McMillan in Magners League action against the now-defunct Border Reivers.

©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

McMillan in Magners League action against the now-defunct Border Reivers.


As things worked out, all three players left the province for England in 2008 - Tommy Bowe also departing for Wales - as it all started to unravel for Ulster in a season which had already seen the resignation of McCall.

For the moment, though, the nostalgia can wait as McMillan has plenty to deal with in his role as Director of Training Systems at sports performance establishment Athlete Training and Health.

The job has him responsible for several gym facilities which have, naturally, all had to close their doors.

"We've gone completely to online training which, as everyone will know from having to change their own routines, is all about adapting to the situation," he says.

He's certainly been busy since touching down in New York back in 2011 after finishing up in the pro game and deciding to go for an opportunity to play and coach at New York Athletic Club (NYAC).

His main consideration then was to be with Amy, who he had met in London during his time with Quins, and end what had become a long-distance relationship since her return to the States. Even though it seemed the logical thing to do for their relationship, job-wise it was a leap into the unknown for the former Ireland A flanker. "I'd no idea who NYAC were," McMillan mentions. "But I went over and loved it. Amy moved up from Texas and we stayed in New York for five years, marrying in 2013."

As well as his involvement at NYAC, where he played injury-free and helped the club win three National Championships in five years, McMillan coached at Fordham prep school in the Bronx and got involved in the rugby programme at West Point Military Academy.

As he recalls: "Living in New York really opened my eyes and gave me a lot of perspective. It made me, well, really hustle to find opportunities.

"You've got to be making money to afford an apartment there, so you've really got to bust your ass."


McMillan training with Ulster back in 2007.

McMillan training with Ulster back in 2007.


McMillan training with Ulster back in 2007.


And for an experienced rugby player, and knowledgeable coach, there were plenty of chances which came his way, including being part of the training preparations for the USA Eagles in the lead-up to the Rugby World Cup in 2015.

He finished playing in 2016 when at NYAC and then the move to Texas still meant he was in demand as he worked at Major League Rugby outfit Houston Sabercats alongside former Ulster team-mate Justin Fitzpatrick.

McMillan's 'hustling' in Texas also saw him coaching women's rugby, though his management role at Athlete Training and Health is now the clear priority.

His time at Ulster still means a lot. The former BRA pupil was tipped for great things, but his hopes of winning a senior Ireland cap were undone by the injuries.

By 2008 he was becoming increasingly frustrated. "I'd been there eight years, but for five of those years I'd required a major operation and I was definitely having a hard time getting back into the team," McMillan recalls. "I was 27 and I still felt I had a lot of tread left in the tyres.

"I didn't leave on bad terms, but Dean Richards and Harlequins were interested and it was a chance to make a fresh start.

"In hindsight, it was the best thing I could have done, though the irony is that after I left Ulster I was lucky enough to have never needed another operation."

While he talks enthusiastically about his time at Ulster, there is a bit of a problem - namely, the whereabouts of his Celtic League winners' medal from 2006.

"It's probably in a box somewhere in my parents' house in Killyleagh," is all he can safely say of the medal from that dramatic game at the Ospreys.

Hopefully he'll get back sometime soon and maybe even relocate it.

Belfast Telegraph