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Legend Q&A: Robbie Ross

Robbie Ross debuted at Newcastle then had whirlwind stints at the Broncos and Hunter Mariners before emerging from the Super League war as the first signing for start-up club Melbourne.

Injuries cut short a promising career that nevertheless included some incredible highlights, which included Test and Origin jerseys and was capped by a 1999 premiership win.

After being forced into early retirement, Ross travelled the globe, backpacking through south and central America for a year with his now-wife, spending a season working the ski fields in Banff in the Canadian Rockies before eventually settling in the UK, working at a boutique funds management firm and starting a property development company and raising two daughters.

Legend Q&A: Robbie Ross

You came through at Newcastle alongside the likes of Andrew Johns – was that a dream come true? What first forged your love of rugby league?

I grew up on the Central Coast playing for the Ourimbah Magpies. From when I was about 10 to 14 there was a five-eighth named Steve Monie, who was John Monie's son. John used to come back to the Coast twice a week in the afternoons to help coach us for an hour while he was the Parramatta coach.

I remember as a kid going down with Steve to Parramatta once a month sitting in the sheds watching Sterlo, Brett Kenny, Ray Price in the sheds when I was 12 or 13. I'd be sitting there watching these giants walk around, Price all battered and bruised. That's a memory that sticks with me.

It was a better offer and I really bought into that story

Robbie Ross on his meeting with Super League

The 1986 grand final between Parra and Canterbury still stands out. I'm not a massive footy head but those early parts really captured me. I was lucky enough to have good coaches at a young age through Ourimbah then I became friends with guys like Danny Williams and Craig Makepeace and then got picked up by Newcastle.

That all happened quite quickly. I grew up playing with Joey, back then Peter Sharp was the Flegg coach, then I made my way into the 21s when I was 17 or 18. I was going to Caves Beach High School, in Year 12, and Ashley Gordon was a school teacher there.

He was the winger, just came out of playing first grade and I used to play with him in reserve grade. He used to take me to training from school.

I was a risk-taker as a fullback and I remember the (under 21s) coach saying to me 'if you keep going like this you won't get another game'. Meanwhile, Joey is in the team too, throwing balls out of his arse left, right and centre so I was following suit. He was about to cut me but then Robert Finch who was the reserve-grade coach called me up.

Robbie O'Davis was the (first grade) fullback at that point, Malcolm Reilly came in as coach (in 1995) and took a liking to me. I played the last eight or so games of the (1994) season back when you'd play reserve grade then sit on the bench for first grade so I got a few runs under David Waite when he was there but I don't think I started a game until Malcolm [arrived].

Robbie Ross after the 1999 grand final.
Robbie Ross after the 1999 grand final. ©NRL Photos

All the Super League stuff kicked off around then…

I finished off in the semis with the Knights (in 1995), I was breaking in but still considered a reserve-grader and I missed the first-grade bus down to Sydney where they all signed and were getting their money. We went down on the reserve-grade bus, about 30 of us, they ushered us into a back room at Channel Nine or somewhere. Kerry Packer comes in and did the pitch to sign up to the ARL.

He said, 'If you all sign today I'll give you all fifty grand cheques'. It was all very rushed and defensive, 'stay with us please, we need the numbers'. I think every player signed bar me and Tony Herman out of that bus trip. There were guys signing and retiring the next day. Ashley Gordon signed it, got his cheque then didn't play again! He just retired, it was hilarious.

It all seemed quite rushed to me so I sat it out. My dad was managing me at the time, I said, 'Can you give News Ltd a call to see what's going on'. We drove down and spoke to Michael O'Connor. It was a better offer and I really bought into that story.

It was one of my favourite years by far, that Hunter Mariners year. We were flying around the world, playing games in Paris, in England, went to Auckland and played in the final. We were all flying around business class. We knew it wasn't going to be sustainable but we had a helluva run for that year.

In between you had one season at the Broncos, how did that come about?

The [1996 Super League] season didn't kick off so I was left without a club. Newcastle were saying come back but I was signed by News Ltd so that wasn't an option. I asked my dad to ring around and try and get a good team somewhere. He rang up Wayne Bennett and Wayne said, 'yeah, send him up but I can't promise him a first-grade spot'.

Looking back at the 1999 Grand Final

I remember sitting out at Red Hill on a bench outside training. I knew a couple of the players. Wayne came up next to me and said 'hey mate how are you doing? Are you here to watch the boys train?' I said 'I've just signed actually, mate, I'm in the reserve grade team!' I was thinking it was going to be a long year.

But Wendell broke his arm about round 11 or 12, I was playing well in reserve grade and Benny chucked me in on the wing to start with but I was playing like a fullback, scoring tries in the middle acting like a support player then he moved Willie Carne to the wing and I jumped into fullback. I really got on well with Kevvie and Alf and those guys. Just about every player in that team played for Australia, it was such an experience.

Ashley Gordon signed it, got his cheque then didn't play again! He just retired, it was hilarious

Robbie Ross recalls the Super League era

That one season helped get you to Melbourne in the long run didn't it?

Midway through the year (in 1997) we were playing the Broncos at home and I think we beat them. Chris Johns who I played with the year before was put in charge of starting this team in Melbourne.

He told me what they were trying to do and the players they were trying to sign and said, 'what's your thoughts?' My parents had just moved to Melbourne and I said I'd be up for it. No one had signed yet, they were telling me who they were hoping to get.

I played State of Origin that year for the NSW Super League Origin side. I knew Lazzo [Glenn Lazarus] from Brisbane as well but they flew Lazzo and myself down to Melbourne. We sat down in a shopping centre for a signing, come down and meet the players sort of thing. About two people showed up.

As it transpires, the Mariners finished up, the court case was over and done with and the ARL and Super League had to come together. I was the first guy to sign with the Storm on the hope they were going to get these other players.

Johnsy said to me, 'can you do me a favour, go up and see if you can get the Mariners boys on board' so he flew me up to Newcastle, I asked them to meet me at the Cricketers' Arms, they were all there – Hilly (Scott Hill), Paul Marquet, Swainy (Richard Swain) and Johnny Carlaw, there might have been one or two more. I was walking in and I remember Michael Hagan standing at the door, he said 'what are you doing here?'

I said 'just having a chat to the boys', he said 'you're not taking them, mate, they're staying in Newcastle'. I said 'they all signed with News Ltd, they have to go to a News Ltd team'. I had a chat to them anyway, told them what it was like down there, what the vision was. At the end of the day, they were all signed with News Ltd so they had to go to a News Ltd club.

They all ended up coming down. It felt like a start-up company really and could have gone either way.

Robbie Ross' strike rate the Storm was an impresive 53 tries in 89 games.
Robbie Ross' strike rate the Storm was an impresive 53 tries in 89 games.

Chris Anderson was the right coach for that period of time, he was a people person. When you take people out of their own environment and all they've got is each other it's very hard not to bond. There were no distractions, no school friends, everyone bonded together because everyone was hanging out together. That played a very important role in the team gelling so quickly. 

That 1999 season you played all three Origins, made your Test debut and won a grand final. That must have been some ride.

There wasn't actually an opposition that it felt like we couldn't beat. From 2002 onwards whether it was the Broncos, Newcastle, St George, whoever it might have been, when we were struggling a bit you knew it was going to be a tough game.

But in that '98 to 2000 period, we were so confident with each other, the team gelled so well, the dynamics worked as well, they bought the right players for each position.

It's a level of confidence that you're always in the game, whether you're falling behind, you have the personnel to pull you through and win the game. We were riding high, everyone was positive and confident.

I still don't think the players are exposed to the Sydney press. I didn't pick up a Big League in five or six years. In Newcastle that didn't happen. When you're down there, back then it wasn't digital, it was all print so where could you get it from?

You were part of the first ever drawn Origin series in 1999. What was that feeling like?

It was bizarre, no one knew the rules, we were going up as much as they were [after the draw in the third game]. They held the shield from '98 so they got to retain it.

On the sad side of that, I was really hitting my straps the next year and did my knee the week of State of Origin so I got selected, I thought I had a cork on my knee, went down and did my medical and the guy said, 'mate, your knee's done, it's all over'. I said 'you're kidding me?'

Robbie Ross is laid low by injury.
Robbie Ross is laid low by injury. ©NRL Photos

So I packed my bags, hopped on a plane and went back home. Unfortunately, that was the start of a hard grind, one that in some ways has tormented me for a long time.

I didn't want to dwell on the injuries…

I remember sitting in the hospital when the first State of Origin was on. I'd just had my knee done and I was watching it thinking 'this sucks'. I had some complications come out of that surgery.

One of them was the graft, I had a lot of scar tissue over where the graft was which caused a lot of scarring but also damaged the nerve as well. I could never really build that muscle back up and every time it was under fatigue it would come unstuck. I think I tore it five or six times in 2002. I never ever felt like I was back to any level of first grade.

It would come unstuck at training. It was a three-year battle. You focus on doing your skills, doing your extra work, that all takes a back seat to you trying to manage your injury. It became a mental bash-up in the end.

Fast forward two or three years, I remember the day going down to the neurosurgeon in Sydney and I remember him saying, 'Rob, you need to have a back fusion'.

The knee started the hamstring problems then the hamstring started working on the back, then I slipped my disc and had to do a microdiscectomy where they shave your vertebra.

Then I did a pre-season under Craig Bellamy with that, got through the pre-season, then played a trial and it went straight away again. At that point, I knew something was seriously going wrong. I saw the neurosurgeon again and he said, 'you need to have a back fusion, you're done'.

Robbie Ross playing for NSW.
Robbie Ross playing for NSW. ©NRL Photos

It was as much a relief mentally as a devastation. I felt like I was constantly bashing my head against a wall. It's like having a dream where you're running away from something but you're going slow, you can't go any faster.

It may have ended sooner than you planned but still – a premiership ring, Origins, a Test match, lots of players would kill for that.

Yeah, short and sweet is how I put it. I did a lot of firsts. I was the first player in Melbourne, I played in front of the biggest grand final crowd, played in the longest rugby league game [the Super League Origin Tri-series decider which lasted 104 minutes], got the fastest try in Origin. I speak to Kearnsy [Robbie Kearns] quite a lot and he's got a CV the size of a giant's arm and he says, 'don't worry about it mate, you ticked all the boxes you can tick'.

I did feel a bit ripped off but life happens and that led me on to the journey of the last 15 years and I wouldn't take any of that back. I've had such a great journey and if I did play another four or five years it was unlikely I do that. 

And now back in Melbourne with the family. Your daughters would be English citizens I imagine?

Yeah, they're English citizens, little Pommies, 10 and eight. I ask them if they got the opportunity to play for Australia or England in whatever they decide to do, which would they choose and they say 'England dad!"

I thought 'geez, I better get these kids back to Australia quickly, see if we can change their minds'. They don't know what the hell's happened at the moment, we came back, they spent six weeks at school then we've been in isolation ever since.

My wife and I only planned to spend six months in the UK originally but we both got decent jobs and six months turned into 13 years. We finally ended up back in Melbourne 20 years later so we've come full circle.