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PRO 14    

Rugby's darkside: Ross Adair's story

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PRO 14    

'The pain was almost like a ripping across my abdomen. I'd no idea what was going on'

Pull up a chair and be inspired. Ross Adair’s attempt to fight his way back into the professional ranks is a winter’s tale to warm the heart at a time of year when so much talk is of bulging Six Nations win bonuses and other money-spinning incentives at the elite end of rugby.

Adair’s name doesn’t roll off many tongues despite representing Ireland in both rugby and cricket at underage level. A single PRO12 appearance a month before his 21st birthday was his lot at Ulster in 2015 before he took a well trodden Irish route abroad in search of fame and fortune – the stepping stone that is the English Championship.

Life in the second tier shadows can often be the springboard to a glamorous breakthrough higher up the food chain. Think Gareth Steenson, another ex-Ulster who found refuge at the Chiefs long before they were promoted and winning Premiership trophies.

Or Robin Copeland, whose far from flash existence at Plymouth and Rotherham opened the Cardiff door that then unlocked Munster and an Ireland cap within a few months of his 2014 return home.

Championship didn’t work out as successfully for Adair. There were 40-plus appearances along with a British & Irish Cup runners-up medal, but the desired upward mobility didn’t transpire.

Continue reading below…

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Instead, degenerative hips brought a premature end to his two-and-a-half year stint at Jersey, the Channel Island club where Harry Williams and Gary Graham proved themselves before securing the Premiership transfers that led to their respective England and Scotland recognition.

Adair is still bravely fighting his corner, however. Rather than call it quits and hobble away when neither Jersey nor his insurer would provide medical bill assistance, Adair took out a personal loan of £15,000 at the start of 2018 to fund the pair of hip operations that now have him back on his feet.

He is playing pain-free All-Ireland League rugby at outside centre with Brian McLaughlin’s Ballynahinch, rubbing shoulders with Ulster squad members Peter Nelson, Johnny McPhillips, Kyle McCall and Tom O’Toole, and dreaming of a return to the professional ranks somewhere in Ireland or abroad next season.

It would be quite the heroic comeback if his ambition is fulfilled. Degenerative hips is an ordeal only supposed to affect people twice the 24-year-old’s age, but Adair has been to hell and back – mentally, physically and financially – to keep his career prospects alive.

He had positively rolled with the initial punches. He scored a try at Rodney Parade during his short-lived Ulster cameo off the bench, but he knew the province had nothing for him so he willingly embraced island life in the Championship.
‘I wasn’t going to be offered an academy or development contract, so going away was the right thing. Going to the Championship was the way to chase it. I wanted to be a professional, wanted to do anything to get there.’

His face fitted for quite a while but then came his 2017 torment, something he is still in the throes of only rebounding from a month into 2019. ‘Towards the end of my second season at Jersey I started getting pain in my pelvic area,’ he explained, taking up a story that should make every fan grimace about the harsh realities of a rugby existence far away from the bright Six Nations lights.

‘I wanted another club to come and sign me because of the confidence I had in myself. I thought I was good enough to go on, but nothing came in so I went back to Jersey and got stuck into pre-season.

‘I was aware for years I’d tight hips but just thought it was from playing rugby all the time. You don’t actually know what is going on inside, but I got to a stage where I couldn’t even run anymore. I couldn’t stride forward, so that is why I knew something was definitely wrong.

‘It was a bit rough. I went well in pre-season, but from September to December there was just months of not being able to do anything and worrying about what was going to happen. It was bleak. Dark times.

‘The pain was almost like a ripping across my abdomen. I’d no idea what was going on. We thought it was a hernia at the start but it wasn’t that. There was hours on an MRI machine. I got my spine checked, got everything checked and everything was fine apart from my hips.

‘We were all set for my operation on December 1 and then it all started going wrong with my insurance. My insurer realised it was degenerative so they backed out of paying and then Jersey wouldn’t help pay either and they released me just before Christmas.

‘When I had re-signed they said they would help get me fixed, get me better and get me fresh, so I was pretty disappointed Jersey turned around and said: “We unfortunately can’t help you”. But that’s just Championship rugby.

‘The RPA looked into it to see if they could do anything but there was nothing so I decided to pay for all the surgery and physio myself. I was in pain every day, sat on a sofa and couldn’t do much everyday stuff, so it was more a life decision.

‘It was a lot of money and the eight weeks between the two operations were extremely miserable as well as the weeks on crutches afterwards. The surgeon said it was an absolute war zone, but it needed to be done.

‘Whether or not I was going to play rugby after the operations was dependant on how I reacted to the rehab. There was also abdomen and adductor rehab. I’m not going to lie, it was tough and there was a lot of emotion. But I’m through it now.

‘Not being in pain every day is a relief and I now want to prove people wrong. I wouldn’t say it [the comeback] has been a complete success. I haven’t got a professional contract yet. We’ll see what the next few months bring.’

Adair’s younger brother Mark helped immensely during rehab. He’d been on Warwickshire’s books in English county cricket, but his need to have a screw inserted in his spine in October 2017 left the brothers nursing each other along to better health at home in Holywood just outside Belfast.

Ross scored a summer ton for fun in a local cricket match and there is now new year optimism for the siblings. Mark’s currently touring with Cricket Ireland A in Sri Lanka while Ross is scoring tries for promotion-chasing Ballynahinch after taking first steps with their seconds team in November.

‘It was a big relief. There was no point worrying about getting injured. I just went out, pretended nothing was wrong and I have moved on in the last nine weeks. I’m alright, touchwood, and don’t see why I can’t do it professionally. I feel I definitely can do a job.

Adair scoring for Ballynahinch RFC

‘I’ve a lot of ambition and my agent is sniffing around. Hopefully some club takes a chance because I believe I have what it takes and have a desire to get through. Getting back to professional level is what is keeping me going.

‘It would be interesting – not just for rugby but for all sports – to see if a guy can go back playing professionally after getting both hips done. It’s a bit of motivation and if I walk on to a pitch professionally next season it would take back all the hard times I have had over the last 15 months.

‘The lesson I have learned is to get everything checked before signing a contract. The insurance I had wasn’t good enough, so I’d be checking the small print next time.’

A spokesperson for Jersey Reds told RugbyPass in a statement: “”We take pride in the way we have always looked after the welfare of our players and believe the club has earned an excellent reputation in this area. We have never released a player as a result of a rugby-related injury.

“We were pleased to learn that Ross Adair had been able to return to playing and wish him all the best with his ongoing recovery and for the future.”

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'The pain was almost like a ripping across my abdomen. I'd no idea what was going on'