Nehe Milner-Skudder Exclusive: ‘I had all my identity wrapped up in being this All Black’

Nehe Milner-Skudder arrived at Rugby New York in May
©Getty Images via Rugby New York

Nehe Milner-Skudder speaks to TRU on a Thursday night, a full day of training behind him and the prospect of FaceTiming his wife and five-month-old daughter firmly on his mind.

It is nearly seven years since the back-three player burst onto the scene, gaining international recognition for his performances at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, where he helped the All Blacks win back-to-back Webb Ellis Cups, scoring a try in the Final in New Zealand’s 34-17 victory over Australia.

Named World Rugby’s Breakthrough Player of the Year following his exploits in a black jersey, the years that followed have been somewhat less kind to the 31-year-old. Consistent injury problems have plagued the North Islander, who is now playing his club ruby for Major League Rugby side, Rugby New York.

Paying their home games in Hoboken, New Jersey, Milner-Skudder is by no means alone as a World Cup winner in the squad. Joining a squad that already boasts having his 2015 teammate, Waisake Naholo and 2011 champion, Andy Ellis, there has certainly been a feeling of home created in the Garden State.

Due to have joined the team for the start of the 2022 MLR campaign, Milner-Skudder instead decided to stay at home in New Zealand as the impending arrival of his first child quickly approached.

Eventually making his way Stateside, which was in part fuelled by a hamstring injury sustained to Eton-schooled Troy Lockyear, the former Hurricanes and Highlanders man has taken like a duck to water in the big apple and now is just one game away from reaching the MLR Championship Final with his new teammates, the team playing the New England Free Jacks on Sunday afternoon in the hopes of progressing to the final.

Quickly becoming a regular under the guidance of former Wasps lock, Marty Veale, Milner-Skudder is finally putting years of near-constant injury behind him. These injuries have been the All Black’s undoing, his progress stunted at every turn and prompting the 31-year-old to re-evaluate much about himself.

“I probably had four or five shoulder surgeries over the space of four or five years and the hardest thing is that the situation and the context was different every time,” Milner-Skudder said.

“As much as people may think it is the same injury, so therefore the rehab is the same, and you have been through it before, so it should be easier. It was in some regard, but what was hard was that I was a different person, working towards different things.

“For example, 2015. I had an awesome year, the World Cup and all that. In the beginning of 2016, I was about two or three games into that season, and I did my shoulder.  That was tough, because my mindset was that I needed to back up what I did in 2015, try and prove myself again, that it wasn’t a fluke.

“That imposter syndrome was playing on my mind, asking what I was even doing in the All Blacks, was it even real? I missed that whole year, that was tough being away from all my teammates, but more so the opportunity to try and prove myself.

“I got back the following year in 2017 and fractured my foot, but my goal was to make the All Blacks for when the [British and Irish] Lions toured. It was a different driver. The reason I was real gutted and upset was different because I was working towards something else.

“I ended up making the Maori All Blacks, played the tour and made the All Blacks tour. We were in South Africa, and I ended up doing my other shoulder, so I was like ‘here we go again’. I rehabbed that, got back into the All Blacks in 2018 and did my other shoulder, again.

“It was a never-ending cycle. I was lowkey depressed, in some dark places, because the reasons were different. It was quite hard. It would have been easy if there was no goals that I was working towards, in terms of trying to make a certain campaign.

“When the 2018 one happened, in 2019 was the World Cup, so I was trying to work back for that and I just had heaps of complications with the shoulder and I didn’t heal up properly, so I was broken because I couldn’t make the World Cup.

“I was so fortunate that I had my wife in my corner, backing me 100%. I was seeking professional help. It is pretty well known. We had a guy called Gilbert Enoka, the All Blacks mental skills coach, I did a lot of work with him, went and saw professional psychologists.

“I had all my identity wrapped up in being this All Black, this rugby player, and through the injury that was taken away. Suddenly my self worth was down in the pits, I was struggling to understand why this kept happening, all these negative thoughts.

“What got me out of it was the support of my wife, my family, close friends and just understanding that although rugby had played a massive part of my life, given me these great highs and lows, it doesn’t define me. It is one small part of who I am.”

With that in mind, the only natural thing to do was ask the 31-year-old how he would define himself now with all those years of learning, the broad smile on his face giving an obvious direction of where the new fathers response would begin.

“In just the last five months, even when I found out we were having a baby, that is my ultimate, it gives me the most pride, the most joy now,” Milner-Skudder said.

“At the moment it is just FaceTiming and video calling, but it is cool. I see my baby smile, that fills my cup up immensely, but there are certain other parts. Being a brother, being an uncle, being a son, being a good mate.

“Just trying to help others, trying to be a person of service, that’s something I try to remind myself, that one of the biggest joys of playing rugby is these boys and girls that want to play the game and they look up to us and as much as it is cool to teach them how to sidestep or score a try or throw a pass left to right, it is all these other things we pick up through rugby around challenges I have been through, setting goals and working towards them, but a lot of things that we pick up through rugby definitely relate to other parts in life.

Waisake Naholo [far left] and Andy Ellis [middle right] are also former All Blacks, while Canada International, Quinn Ngawati, has New Zealand heritage
©Stanton Hunter

“I think if we can impart those messages to young boys and girls at an earlier age, real life skills – yeah, teach them how to sidestep, tackle and all of that – but teach them good characteristics and values we learn along the rugby journey, whether they go on to play for England, All Blacks, Black Ferns or whoever, I think it will hold them in good stead.

“As much as I can, or try, to remind myself, I would much rather be a good person than a good rugby person. It helps being a good person or trying to be the best person you can be definitely helps you towards how you want to play rugby as well.”

After playing his last Test for the All Blacks, Milner-Skudder’s career took its longest break. This was partly fuelled by his 2018 shoulder injury, as well as the global pandemic, the back missing out on a lucrative move to Toulon as a result of his woes.

Signing for the Highlanders in 2020, Milner-Skudder wouldn’t debut for the franchise until the 2021 edition of Super Rugby Aotearoa only making one appearance before returning to the Hurricanes, where he made his name, on a trial basis.

Following his exit from the Hurricanes, Milner-Skudder’s only form of rugby before heading to New York, came for Ngati Porou East Coast in a centenary game for the East Coast Rugby Union against Poverty Bay, as well as for his beloved Manawatu Turbos in the NPC Bunnings alongside New York teammates Ed Fidow and Jason Emery.

A move to America had an obvious appeal to the 31-year-old, who honeymooned in the country and went to watch Oklahoma City Thunder and his countryman, Steven Adams, in the NBA. Preparing to make the trip to watch either the New York Yankees or Mets, Milner Skudder now calling the country home for a couple more weeks at the very least.

More than anything he is enjoying a new way of living, reconnecting with teammates from years gone by, as well as embedding himself in a new rugby culture.

“I haven’t played with Wais [Naholo] since maybe 2017 or 2018 for the All Blacks,” Milner-Skudder said. “After a couple of days, it was almost like we were on tour again and we had been playing [together] for years.

“It is awesome to be able to reconnect and pick up those relationships even though it has been years, with it being like yesterday since we caught up. Same with Andy Ellis, I played one season with him in the All Blacks and played a lot against him in Super Rugby.

“When you play against guys, you get a certain perception of them, but then you become teammates. I had heard about Andy, in terms of his influence on the field, but what he does off the field with team culture, it is quite impressive to see how much influence he has, and it is inspiring me as a bit of an older player, how to conduct myself and how I can help others get better.

“We have got two other young half-backs in the team, after every training session Andy is doing extra skills with them. For someone who has numerous caps for the All Blacks, won a World Cup, Super Rugby titles, for him to just impart his knowledge and to see him operate the way he does, it is like ‘far out, that is what I need to be doing as well.

“Especially here in America, where the game is still growing, boys are still growing their own game and trying to support them as best I can.

“It is cool to reconnect with the guys I have played with but see them mature and develop into role models and leaders for other guys coming through.”

Every week at the New York training facility, the team invited members of their academy to come in and train with the senior squad. These teenagers are instantly surrounded by the world’s best, Milner-Skudder for one staying behind to do extras with the youngsters that could well be future of USA Rugby.

Due to his late arrival and playing commitments, the 31-year-old hasn’t been able to get back to coaching, something he began doing on a more serious level whilst injured to remain an important cog of whichever machine he was a part of.

Coming to America, Milner-Skudder knew that he was moving to a country with lofty ambitions. Awarded the 2031 and 2033 Rugby World Cup’s it is a nation to keep an eye on the world over, the All Black learning on the ground.

Having never played professional rugby outside of New Zealand up to now, he says he has learnt and seen plenty to let him know that there is real potential in the US.

“I feel bad, a bit ignorant or naïve, because some of the questions I have asked were like ‘do they have high school competitions’ and asking questions about the pathways for boys and girls to work their way up, the ultimate dream for them to play in the national team,” he said.

This weekend Milner-Skudder will come up against Dougie Fife's New England Free Jacks in the Eastern Conference Final, the winner progressing to the Championship Final next week
©Daniel Gardiner

“Part of me felt really bad, and stupid, for asking that question. I was a bit blown away with the amount of rugby and the development of it happening at a young age. Knowing the World Cup’s happening, it is only going to get bigger.

“The way I look at it, and hope to explain it, with MLR trying to make that high end competition, getting some great players, a high level of rugby, it has also got to be matched at the bottom as well in terms of developments.

“If they are trying to get international players and coaches over here for MLR, they need them staying on after the season to work with some development programmes and creating pathways to help the top and the bottom meet.

“There are some athletes over here. Where we train in jersey, there is a local park and pretty much every second day there are guys doing NFL drills. Some of the guys we have had come into the New York team that have been involved with the NFL squads, they are absolute freaks.

“We had one guy, in my second week here, come in and train and he was training with the backs. I was like ‘aren’t you a lock or a loose forward?’, and he was like ‘I am a winger’. He looked like a bigger Sonny Bill Williams, and he said he was one od the smallest guys when he was at the Cleveland browns.

“The untapped potential of these athletes is crazy. If we can bring rugby knowledge, understanding, get them training and playing rugby from an earlier age, it is just a numbers game. 

“Not everyone can make it, but rather than just waiting before they get to college to try and get guys that don’t make it, get some good pathways, some good competitions, some good programmes happening at a high school level, that will help grow players, and by the time they can actually take rugby a bit more seriously when they get to college.”