At 6’3 and weighing 20 stone 9, Ulster fans are excited to see Milasinovich return to the playing squad and enhance competition in the front-row. Milasinovich is a man mountain and arrived with a reputation as a ferocious ball carrier and the enviable ability to cover both sides of the scrum.
Gareth was dealt a cruel blow ahead of this season, suffering a knee injury in pre-season training that would rule him out for most of the season.
The South Africa-born prop qualifies for Ireland through his grandfather Norman McFarland, a former Ulster hooker. He has followed in the footsteps of his grand-father and father (who also played rugby to a high level).
Here, he discusses his early introduction to rugby, his experience of Ulster so far and what it means to him to pursue his dream of being a professional rugby player.
Have you settled into Belfast?
Yes. All settled which is good and the teammates, they’re a good bunch of lads. The support so far from the coaches and everyone has been top class to be fair and they’ve all been really good about the injury and supportive. It’s good to be all settled in now.
What do you think of Belfast as a city?
I’ve got quite a bit of family over here, so I’ve been here a few times before. I found it wasn’t all completely new to me, so I had visited Belfast a few times. Still slowly getting my bearings, visiting is one thing but obviously living here takes a bit longer to get your bearings. I really like it, it’s very different to Worcester. Everyone says Belfast, it’s a really small city but compared to where I came from it’s huge.
Did you speak to the guys at Worcester before coming over?
Yes, they all gave me the low down on the club, what it’s like. Callum Black, Mike Heaney, Niall Annett who all sort of gave me advice. Doaky’s there as well, I had a talk with them beforehand just to find out more about the club and what it’s like and they all had nothing but positive things to say about everything really.
Who or what made you passionate about rugby?
I came from a very rugby-dominated family. So, my grandfather, he was rugby mad, he played for Malone and for Ulster. I think he trained with the Irish squad as well back in the day, he never got a cap though. He probably was a massive influence in my rugby. My uncle as well, he’s also a rugby coach and a massive rugby fan and so is my dad. He played provincially and he came from quite a small, not-very-well-known school and still managed to make it through to the biggest under-age competition in South Africa which an under 18 schoolboy festival of sorts. They would choose the best schools, the best players from different areas and they would all compete in the space of 3 games over the space of a week and a bit. It’s a big competition there where they pick up a lot of players for teams in South Africa. My dad managed to play for the Lions, so he was a massive influence. It was the whole family really; I don’t think I had a choice growing up but to play rugby! But I’m very glad I did.
Did you play other sports?
I was sport mad, I played whatever sports, whatever ball sports that I could get my hands on. When I was a bit younger and a wee bit smaller, I was a cross country runner believe it or not. And an athletics runner, I used to run the 100 but I probably got a bit too heavy for that. In primary school days I was a sprinter and then as I got bigger and continued to play rugby, I moved from the backs onto the flank and played in the loose forwards for a bit until I was about 16. I thought my best chance to play first team rugby at school was to follow my dad’s footsteps and play in the front row. I moved to prop so I never looked back.
Did you bulk up deliberately?
Naturally, as puberty hit, I naturally got bigger and stronger, so it was a natural development. I probably could have got away with being on the flank when I was probably 16, 17, schoolboy rugby you know, you could get away a bit better with it. My dad, he was lock at school I think but soon after when he came back from the army, he ended up moving into the front row so he influenced me in that decision.
My grandfather played as hooker; my dad was a tight-head prop so being in the front-row runs in the family.
Did he help coach or give you tips about the dark-arts of front-row play?
Always on a Sunday after the game, we’d go out to my school, sometimes college, in Johannesburg there and we’d practice a few scrumming things and he’d help me with my technique and stuff like that. He was very helpful in my rugby development.
Do you play both sides of the scrum?
Majority of my career I’ve played tight-head. When Worcester spotted me in a competition called the Varsity Cup in South Africa which is where the top 8 universities play against each other and it’s all televised. It’s a big thing Monday night, loads of Springboks have come through that competition now so it’s quite a big competition in South Africa now. There I was actually playing loose-head, so I’ve played a couple of seasons at loose-head. I enjoy both positions but tight-head I have more experience at I’d say.
You often hear tight-head is a more specialised position? What are the particular nuances of switching sides?
I think personally that tight-head is a more difficult position than loose-head in some respects, scrummaging-wise anyway because you obviously have the loose-head and the hooker coming at you whereas loose-head it’s just the tight-head really you need to worry about. I definitely think it’s more of a challenging position really and I enjoy challenge so that’s probably why I ended up staying a tight-head.
The tight-head’s always key in a successful scrum.
We have a bit of competition in the squad now, it’s just unfortunate with your injury that you will have to wait to compete for a spot in the front row.
It’s always good for everyone really, a bit of competition, forces everyone to up their game.
How did the injury happen?
Second week in during pre-season training just sort of conditioning games, I just sort of landed funny when I made a tackle. That was that. I didn’t think it was too serious initially then when the scan came back it wasn’t good. Just one of those unfortunate things, just like a freakish thing more than anything.
Louis Ludik was talking to me about the rugby festivals that happen in South Africa for school-age kids. They sound class, tell me a bit more about that.
There’s a festival called Easter Rugby Festival that’s quite popular in South Africa over the Easter weekend. I think schools will be invited from all over South Africa. There are about 4 or 5 main schools in SA that will host the tournament. St Johns, the school that I went to is one of them and you’ll get schools from Cape Town, from Durban and Pretoria, all over the place, so that’s where you get to play schools you wouldn’t ordinarily play. That’s hugely supported by everyone in South Africa, you get massive, massive crowds at schoolboy rugby games, especially those Easter Rugby festivals you get thousands and thousands that come through to watch.
Do people take it seriously?
I’d say schoolboy rugby in South Africa is very well supported. I’m not sure what it’s like in NI but in England it didn’t come across to me as nearly as well supported. You’d definitely get a few thousand at your local derbies, school derbies in South Africa so you always get a few thousand people come to watch the game on a Saturday afternoon. There’d always be obviously the parents and there’d be loads of the old boys that used to be at the school. They come to watch and have a good time and meet all their old friends.
The School’s Cup here is relatively well supported but nothing nearly as big as South Africa from the sound of it?
In South Africa there’s one particular derby between two Cape Town schools, two schools based in the Cape. That derby every year gets over 20,000 people coming to watch sometimes. It’s huge.
Did you have any guys in your year who went on to play professionally?
No. The school I went to was sort of a private school, there was more academic folk. So, we didn’t have too many out and out rugby players. Some of the rugby players who have gone on and done well are people like Demitri Catrakelis, he was there playing in France and I think he was at Harlequins and now he’s gone back to South Africa. We’ve got Scott Spedding, he was a St Johns boy. There are a few others who play provincially, a couple of youngsters who have done well and are coming through the ranks as well. So those are the main ones. Back in the day, there was a hooker called Owen Nkumane, he was also a St Johns boy. St Johns isn’t really a renowned rugby school like some the others but it’s still very supported as most of the good schools in South Africa are.
Were there players growing up that you looked up to?
There was loads to be fair but probably my favourite growing up was a player called Os du Randt, a loose head for the Springboks. He was probably one of my idols growing up when I was playing, after I turned to the front row. Initially you’d always watch the back rows, the glory players. When you move to the front row your idols change. He was a very good player.
What would you be doing if you weren’t playing professional rugby?
So, when I came out of school, I had to choose between taking rugby seriously and other stuff I had going on. The first 2 years of university I was trying to juggle rugby and I was going to have to be training with the Lions, the youths of the Lions, the under 19s and under 21s so I was training there and I was doing my university degree and I just couldn’t manage both.
I was travelling back and forth non-stop throughout the day kind of thing and I had to make a choice, so I ended up deciding to get my studies done out of the way first. I got my degree, my undergrad degree in financial management and then I did my postgrad, because it works differently in South Africa.
Then I’d always said after I’ve finished that, the Varsity Cup competition was going wild so I thought, after I finish that I definitely said I’ll give rugby a try for a year or two, if it works out, great, if it doesn’t I probably would have gone into something like financial advising or gone into something that I studied for really.
What are the best things about being a professional rugby player and the worst things?
I’d say some of the best things is definitely the camaraderie you form with your teammates. Rugby teaches you so many life lessons and it’s obviously just always been a dream job of mine. It’s been fantastic to be able to live my dream really. It’s always something that when you grow up that’s what you want to do. You watch it on TV, and you see all these players playing in front of these massive crowds and it’s something you always just dream of. I’ve just been very lucky that I’ve been able to play rugby professionally. It’s just good fun and you’re always excited to wake up and go into work and do what you love.
I suppose on the flip side it can be quite difficult really when you pick up a serious injury or serious knock and it ends up putting you out for a long time because you can’t perform the job you’re paid to do and it’s always frustrating for yourself when you see all your teammates out there training, having a good time and you have to stay inside and do weights and rehab, conditioning and all the rest. You just want to be out there with a rugby ball enjoying it. So, it’s definitely injuries for me personally has been the hardest part of rugby.
Examples where a failure where a setback has set you up for later success?
Yes, as I say I’ve had a couple of serious injuries. I was very fortunate for my first 20 years of rugby I was injury free, never really had an injury. It’s always a massive setback when you do get injured, especially when you get to university. I did my ACL, my left ACL, that was sort of as I was pushing on to play in the Varsity Cup team which is obviously what you strive to do when you’re at university, it was back that first year. I’d injured that just before and that was obviously extremely frustrating for me, so I had to do the whole rehab and recovery and eventually got back and managed to play a bit so that was always good.
I’d say one of my toughest moment was when I started at Worcester, I’d played a lot of the season. I arrived as 4th choice, I was 22 and I’d just finished my degree there and I thought I’d give rugby a try and if it doesn’t work out it doesn’t work out. Things were going well. I’d pushed my way through, I started off in the academy at Worcester, I’d pushed my way to get onto the bench for the senior team. As I’d done that, the next weekend I snapped my achilles against Exeter towards the end of that season. What would have been a very successful season ended up having a big dampener on it because of a serious injury. Just been that really that has been the biggest challenge for me personally.
Obviously I had to start again and work my way back up which I fortunately managed to do and I managed to play the past 2 seasons at Worcester relatively injury free and I was lucky enough to play 50 or 60 games over those 2 seasons which was great. Going into a new environment, starting at a new club and getting injured so early on before you can show the coaches and show your teammates what you’re capable of is always a humbling and disappointing experience. This will be a big change for me now, to get myself back fit as soon as I can and try to showcase what I have to offer and earn my teammates’ and the coaches respect if you know what I mean. That’s one of the challenges now that I will face as I recover.
How did you end up coming to Ulster? What attracted you to Ulster?
Growing up there’s always been this strong Irish contingent in my family through my grandparents and my mum. There’s always been that Ulster element to it where my grandfather would tell me about his days back at Malone and at Ulster rugby club. I’d always watch them on TV. It would probably be them and the Lions from Johannesburg, those would be the 2 teams I’d play as a kid on my PlayStation, on Rugby 08. It’s always been in my genes. We’d have family from Northern Ireland come and visit us annually and they’d always tell me about Ulster and stuff like that. If they were on TV I’d always watch, I’d always keep an eye on them sort of through the links, through my grandfather. It’s always been something that I’ve thought about. The fact that the opportunity came about and Ulster were keen to have me on board was something I couldn’t turn down. Following my grandfather’s footsteps is an amazing thing to try and do. It was an easy decision to make in the end just with the way I’ve been brought up.
Do you have aspirations to play for Ireland?
That would be amazing, but I can’t even… I can try my best to make a name for myself at Ulster first. If that comes about, that would be dreams come true, that would be amazing. If it doesn’t, they’ve got an immensely talented squad. They’ve great depth. I think maybe 2 years down the line, 3 years down the line if everything’s gone well that would be fantastic opportunity but for now I think I have to focus on doing as much as I can for Ulster before I even get close to looking ahead at the Irish team.
What sort of player are you? How would you describe yourself as a player?
First and foremast I think if you’re a talented prop, you’re scrummaging has got to be your number one weapon and then from there the rest of the game can take care of itself. Once you get the scrum sorted, that’s the most important element is to have a good set piece. That’s something I’ve worked very hard on. Especially at Worcester, because in South Africa the set piece wasn’t as big of a focus growing up as it was to get the ball in your hands and run a play. I do think that I have that ball carrying attribute, shall I say, from South Africa and have hopefully added some scrummaging experience from my time at Worcester and in the Premiership.
Scrummaging is a massive part of the game.
In the premiership, they place a huge, huge focus on the scrums and the line outs. They place massive focus on the set piece which is something I had to adapt to when I came over because in South Africa it’s more just getting the ball in your hands and trying to showcase whatever you can.
Is it an advantage to play in the southern and northern hemisphere?
I’d like to think so. When you go from one place with a focus on one element to another with a focus on something else you slowly started to develop yourself as a player. I like to think I’ve taken some of the good parts of South African rugby and some of the good parts of the Premiership rugby and tried to develop myself with those and tried to learn from both competitions and hopefully be able to add that, to bring that to the table when playing for Ulster.
Who’s the best player that you’ve played against?
I’d say I found, scrummaging-wise, he’s retired now but I was very lucky enough, or unlucky enough whichever way you look at it to play against Marcos Ayerza. He was a tremendous scrummager. I was quite young; it was my first season at Worcester, and I manged to play against him. That was an amazing experience in the sense that it showed me how much further I needed to go to be able to get to a level to be able deal with that kind of pressure exerted in the scrum. Scrummaging-wise I’d say, because that’s obviously your bread and butter in the front row, so scrummaging-wise he’s the toughest I’ve faced.
What are your expectations for Ulster in the next couple of seasons?
I couldn’t believe how young and talented the squad as a whole is. There are so many really good players that you couldn’t believe how young they are. I think last season they showed no glimpses of what Ulster can do. I think now Ulster are only going to get better. The boys are only going to get more and more experienced and improve, they have so much time on their side. It’s important over these next couple of years for us to keep on and start using the talent that the whole squad brings because there’s a lot. There’s so much talent and the age of some of the boys, I couldn’t believe it. You see them training and how good they are, and I can only imagine how good they can be when they get a bit more game time and a bit more experience.
Some of the young guys have really excelled.
There’s loads of young boys and guys who are coming through so well. Ulster are only going to improve and get better. When you consider how well they still did last season that just shows that there is endless potential there.
What are your impressions of the coaches?
They’ve been fantastic. You can tell that they’re really knowledgeable about the game. All they want is for you to improve as a player and they focus on everyone individually. They just want the best for everyone, and they have got sort of a fountain of knowledge as well. They’ve highlighted aspects of the game which you wouldn’t even think of. So, they pick up on a lot of things that I ordinarily wouldn’t have and it just helps you keep that in the back of your mind as another area to work on or improve or keep an eye out for and stuff that like. They’ve been fantastic, I’ve been very impressed.
From the fan’s perspective it’s a great time to be a supporter with so much potential in our squad.
Definitely, it’s a very exciting for the club in general. I’m very excited to see how the boys kick on and start the season and really look forward to get back playing!
When you think of the word “successful” who’s the first person you think of?
I’d say that… my grandfather, definitely. He came to South Africa, at the time just with my mum who was a month old baby and my uncle who was only about 2 years old, my gran and then they just got off the plane and the way they made an incredible life for themselves and created this fantastic family was definitely something I hope to do the same.
Do you have any hobbies?
Yeah, obviously it’s been put a bit on hold, but I’ve been thoroughly enjoying my golf at the moment, so I was playing a lot of that in the off season. I enjoy watching the Premier league. There’s a big group of boys, we play the fantasy football. I had a bit more time off to analyse some players at the start of the season. That will be something else I’ll be dedicating a bit of time to.
Do you support a premiership team?
I do, Manchester United.
Do you have a favourite movie or TV series?
My favourite movies are probably the whole James Bond series.
Any in particular?
It’s hard, there’s so many. I prefer certainly all the ones with Sean Connery or Roger Moore I’d say.
Where does the name Milasinovich come from?
My dad, he was born in South Africa but his dad, my grandfather, was originally from Yugoslavia when it was part of Yugoslavia back then and he married my gran who was German. So that surname obviously is originally from Yugoslavia. Now that Yugoslavia is broken up in 2 different countries, the exact part he was from is Montenegro.