Sport Rugby

Saturday 29 April 2017

Sinead Kissane: Miller's past and future show that seeing is believing

Ireland's Alison Miller. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Ireland's Alison Miller. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

Poor Kim Kardashian must have been appalled that she wasn't the woman on the west coast of America who broke the internet this week. Kim confused International Women's Day as an excuse to forget to dress herself as she posted another naked selfie for her followers on social media (stay klassy, Kimmy).

Instead, the woman on the west coast who caught the world's attention was draped in black in a LA hotel, wearing a Lady Diana confessional pout, with a wrist courtesy of Tag Heuer and a public relations performance courtesy of her management company IMG.

I could never warm to Maria Sharapova Inc. Her press conference on Monday night when she revealed she tested positive for meldonium was made-for-TV and made to suck out our sympathy. Please spare us the redemption story which will inevitably follow too because Sharapova has become just another sports star who has proved you can't believe everything you see in sport. If you're happy to fall for fool's gold then, by all means, go elsewhere. But I would much prefer to talk about sports women we can believe in.

Sharapova and performance-enhancing drugs inevitably came up in conversation when I met with one of Ireland's elite rugby players in Carlow this week. Alison Miller is back in the Ireland XV for tomorrow's Six Nations game against Italy in Donnybrook after missing the first three games because she's also part of the Ireland 7s squad who are preparing to try and qualify for the Olympic Games in Rio this summer.

Women's rugby is the new kid on the block in sport. International figures released from World Rugby this week stated that almost 310,000 more women played it last year which is a 17pc increase from 2014.

But just because it's still a young sport doesn't make it should be immune to questions which are constantly being asked of other sports.

"I would have been drug-tested quite a lot in 15s and in 7s previously but now obviously because it's an Olympic sport I've been tested a lot of times," Miller says. "As an athlete you are responsible. I'm very careful whenever you take medication. I probably do it too many times, I would check one way and then I'd check the other way just to be careful with what you're taking."

So can we believe what we see? Unlike other sports people, like in international athletics for example, Miller doesn't have those same concerns about whether her opponents are cheating.

"It (drug-testing) is quite stringent so if there is anyone there that is cheating - and I don't think there is anyone there at the moment - they will get caught. I would be very much of the belief that it is clean," she states.

When I ask Miller what motivates her, she laughs saying she's still trying to figure that one out.

But she doesn't need to see to believe. It was in her final year of college at Waterford IT that she started playing rugby at the age of 22 after her father - Laois football legend Bobby Miller - unexpectedly passed away the previous summer. Her dad had an influence on her as a kid which she didn't see at the time.

"I learned a lot from him in terms of how he prepared teams. He was an intense man and quite serious and how he prepared would have sunk into your psyche as a young child," Miller explains.

His death made her think that she needed to try something new so when she returned to college after a difficult few months following his death, she signed up with the rugby team.

Believes

Her dad didn't see her play inter-county football with Laois and winning the Grand Slam and Six Nations with Ireland. But she believes he's watching over her: "It would have been nice if he had seen that. He never saw that and he never saw me play football for Laois either but it does drive me on knowing that he's there looking on."

Miller's dad was her hero growing up. Not someone she only saw on TV. Not someone she didn't know. Not someone she couldn't believe in.

And Miller has now become a player for others to believe in. Not just for what she does on the pitch - like scoring one of the tries which helped Ireland beat New Zealand in the 2014 Women's Rugby World or her hat-trick of tries against Scotland which won them the Six Nations last year or her hat-trick of tries against England in the 2013 Grand Slam-winning season. It's also easy to see why Sky Sports asked her to be a mentor in their Living for Sport initiative which tries to improve the lives of secondary school students through participation in sport.

There's something about Miller which makes it easy to relate to her.

Maybe it's because our real heroes are the ones who live among us and whose sporting past we can trace right back to their parents. Maybe it's the complete lack of bullshit. Maybe it's because she knows she has contradictory parts to her personality, like most of us.

She says she's a free spirit but also admits that the regimented life of an elite player suits her. She likes playing off the cuff but also appreciates the importance of playing within the system. She likes physical sports but also did ballet as a kid. She doesn't drink but she's very sociable.

She likes a relaxed approach but she says she's also very intense.

The winger's pace as a player came from taking part in athletics when she was in school where she won two National Schools titles in the 400m Hurdles as well as excelling in the triple jump, long jump and pentathlon.

While she laughs that her practical side informed her that she wouldn't be good enough to become a pro, an Olympic dream may come in a different guise this summer. She doesn't think they performed to their ability in recent tournaments in Brazil and Dubai but she's confident the Irish 7s team have a good chance of making Rio when they play in the final qualifying event in UCD in June.

For now, the future is tomorrow and playing Italy in Donnybrook. A scepticism and lack of appreciation about women's rugby still seems to come from being defined by what it isn't rather than what it is. And I look forward to the day when a conversation with an Irish women's rugby player doesn't involve pleading for more support from the Irish public.

But Miller just wants you to find out for yourself.

"If people came to see the women's game I think some of them would be pleasantly surprised," Miller says. "I think sometimes you have to see it to understand it."

Maybe seeing is believing.

Irish Independent

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