Ex-Gala man Millar aiming high in London

Lee Millar in pre-season action for London Scottish in an 81-12 victory over Esher. Picture: Ray Willmott@FotoGraffic
Lee Millar in pre-season action for London Scottish in an 81-12 victory over Esher. Picture: Ray Willmott@FotoGraffic
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HE WAS raised in Moray, came of age in the Borders and now Lee Millar is looking to make his mark in the “busy-ness” of London as he has it.

Despite his heroics over the last three years for his adopted club of Gala the 21-year-old stand-off was overlooked by Edinburgh this summer. So he did what all aspiring young players should do, upped sticks and found himself a deal elsewhere.

Millar makes his London Scottish, his Championship and his professional rugby debut this afternoon. He faces a Bristol side, coached by former Scotland boss Andy Robinson, and packed with Premiership experience for a tilt at the title. Despite home advantage, Bristol lost their opening match to the Cornish Pirates and they will be desperate to get off the mark today and they will be targeting any perceived weakness in the Exiles’ ranks.

“I cannot wait to get out there and experience my first game in the Championship,” said Millar. “My nerves were jangling when I was told I would be playing but I am going to really enjoy it. They will be coming out all guns blazing to get the first win of the season. We have just got to step up and kick on from last week and get another win under our belts. It was a physical encounter for Bristol against Cornish Pirates so I expect it to be a similar match and for me to get hit a few times.”

Millar is a product of Moray RFC in Elgin but a chance encounter with Richie Gray (the former Gala lock, not the current Scotland international) at the Melrose Sevens ensured that the stand-off was quickly decked out in a maroon shirt and, before long, he was racking up the points like Stephen Hendry in a hurry.

Gala took Millar to their heart and he repaid the kindness several times over. Peter Dods, the former Scotland full-back and a Gala legend, worked closely with Millar on his goal-kicking during his stint at Netherdale and the extra hours in front of the posts paid off. In the three years he was at the club Millar claimed over 900 points and last season alone he scored 340-plus points for his club on top of the six penalties he kicked to help Scotland’s club international team to a rare victory over the Irish. The deadly marksman also slotted a penalty, two touch-line conversions and a handy drop-goal against London Scottish to help Gala get the better of the Exiles in the British and Irish Cup – a performance that went a long way to persuading Scottish to sign him as a replacement for Phil Godman, who moved to Newcastle Falcons in the summer.

“I suppose the game that we played at Netherdale that day opened the door for me,” Millar mused out loud. “I guess I was in the shop window so to speak and got noticed. I am stepping into Phil Godman’s boots and he played for Scotland so I suppose there is a little bit of pressure on me to perform but you just have to do the job as well as you can. It’s a big game obviously because they will be fired up to win at home. They will be flying out the blocks but we know what to expect.

“I suppose the main difference between the Championship compared to the Scottish Premiership is in the intensity and the physicality of the game. It’s not a huge step up but it is a different level. We played Harlequins in pre-season and the speed and intensity at the breakdown was much quicker.”

As well as Millar, the London Jocks also signed former Ireland international Neil Best from Worcester over the summer and they got their current campaign off to a flyer on the opening weekend of the season with a comfortable win over Ealing Trailfinders in a double header on Saracens’ artificial turf at Allianz Park. It was a commanding display, especially for a side that had just lost their well-respected coach one week into the new season.

Simon Amor dragged Scottish into the Championship, kept them up in their first season and, last year, led them to a respectable eighth. A few weeks back, Amor left to coach the England sevens squad, which left the Exiles looking for a new gaffer with the season just started and everyone who is anyone nailed down long ago.

Forwards specialist James Buckland has taken over the day-to-day coaching duties for the time being and there are enough old heads at London Scottish to keep the ship afloat for the time being.

“I have been doing a lot of work on my defence with Serge Betsen,” added Millar. “He is great on the actual technique of tackling and I guess we will find out on Sunday if my defence is improving! It’s exciting times, I am learning from all the people around me all the time, it’s good input.”

While Millar has done the right thing in moving south, it is a mystery that the Exiles have not hired more promising young Scots. It would give them more clout in their dealings with Murrayfield and a much higher profile north of the Border where they have to fight for recognition.

Unsurprisingly it’s all about money. London Scottish were paid a whopping £335,000 by the RFU last season but the moolah comes with strings attached. The club once required that every 1st XV player boasted Scottish qualifications but they are now obliged to field an average of 16 English qualified players in their match day 22 every month (some players might be dual qualified). Even if they wanted to, London Scottish will never become Scotland’s third professional team, although right now they offer Millar a home from home.

It’s a step up the ladder but hopefully it won’t be the last because Millar wants the Exiles to act as a stepping stone. He has followed Godman into the Championship and, ultimately, he hopes to follow the former Scotland No.10 into top-flight rugby.

A good start against Bristol this afternoon will be the first step.