From the back row to the frontline: how ex-Ireland star Eric Miller went from pro rugby to nursing home work
The 12 Days of Christmas - Over the festive period, we are making two of our best premium pieces from 2020 free for 24 hours every day for you to enjoy. Here, Ruaidhri O'Connor interviews former Ireland and Leinster star Eric Miller
Eric Miller knows there's no immortality available on the rugby pitch. He may be a Test series-winning Lion from arguably the most famous tour of all, but every day he is surrounded by people who don't have a clue what he did in his previous life and it suits him fine.
Life has taken the former Ireland international in a different direction since he gave up playing the game that dominated his first 30 years.
Rugby has remained a constant in his life through coaching and he takes charge of the local team in Edenderry, Co Offaly where he lives.
His work, however, is far removed from the trivialities of sport.
At the turn of the year, he began working in a Dublin nursing home. Two months later, the world changed with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and his place of work became a very different setting.
So far, thankfully, the home has not been directly affected by the virus, but, like all similar facilities, the environment has changed.
"Most importantly, the residents are OK," he says, explaining that everyone who lives and works at the home was tested recently.
"The healthcare staff are a great bunch of people, it's amazing how elevated those roles have become while the world of celebrity and rugby have sort of taken a back seat.
"These people, these roles are really being valued now. And just working with them has been eye-opening. In one way it might be seen as a menial sort of job, but it's a privilege to be involved at the moment with the way the world is turned upside down.
"I work with some Brazilians, some Romanians. The overseas workers are doing Trojan work keeping the place spotless. A lot of them are vastly experienced and watching them at work with the patients is great to see.
"I'm right in an environment which has obviously been thrust into the limelight. It's just really taking things day to day and trying to help people. There are people who are coming to the end of their lives there and you're getting to talk with them; engage and pray with them if they need it.
"Those types of thing, I suppose I'm in my comfort zone. And I really feel I get to sort of live out my faith in that too, you know?"
Miller's faith is a key component in his story. When he played, the game was his life, but there was something unfulfilling about the experience and when he walked away from the professional game he leaned heavily on his belief in God.
That faith has driven many of his decisions and taken him, his wife Jenny and daughter Hannah to Sri Lanka where their three became four as they adopted their second daughter Nisha whom they met in a local orphanage.
It was while volunteering at the orphanage that Miller saw his future in caring for people.
Since retiring, he has been a coach. He worked in golf fitness and was Shane Lowry's personal trainer, while he took clubs and schools teams including coaching Blackrock College in the AIL.
But the experience of caring for his new daughter, who has a form of cerebral palsy called closed lip schizencephaly, pointed him in the direction of healthcare.
Initially, he wanted to become a physiotherapist and began studying Leaving Cert science having not taken it the first time around.
But when his work at Catholic University School in Dublin came to an end before Christmas, he changed tack and began a Fetac course to become a healthcare worker while working three days a week to gain experience and support the family.
Sri Lanka was a life-altering experience. Initially, he went there to coach schools rugby with Trinity College in Kandy.
"It's the second biggest town in the centre of the island," he explains.
"Through the church that we went to, we met people who were visiting an orphanage one day and that's when Jenny and I met Nisha. I think she just felt a maternal instinct. Our faith was a very important part of it. Basically, my wife would say that God told her to take that child."
The process wasn't easy.
"It was 15 months of turmoil trying to get her back," Miller says. "We sort of fell into the orphanage that way through our church.
"We both met her and then she (Jenny) threw it on me straight away. We considered it and we decided to kick off the process.
"It was a bit of a battle over a couple of years to get her. Then, it was a battle getting her into Ireland because we had to prove that we didn't go over there to adopt her and all we had there was circumstantial evidence (that he was there to coach). We had to build a case to get her back into Ireland. We were separated as a family for a while."
When they got home, they started a fundraising drive to get Nisha the surgery she needed to help her walk.
"So much has happened. It's like a couple of lifetimes . . . the story of getting her home, of my wife and Nisha being left over there for 100 days and struggling to get her back into the country; getting her citizenship, her passport. That sort of triggered our mind saying, you know, listen, there's a story to tell there," he recalls of the decision to go public in a bid to get support for the operation.
"Irish people are incredibly generous with fundraising. We couldn't afford this operation ourselves. Our faith journey as well led us to want to talk about it too. The fact that we rely on God to lead our lives in many ways. That was obviously a big part of it too.
"Nisha needed that operation as soon as possible and to get on the waiting list for that meant that we had to move pretty quickly once we got her back.
"She is doing great.
"The operation in America, it was spinal surgery that severs the nerve that's causing the spasms in her legs through the hamstrings and calves, which elevates the feet. That sort of made her legs lax again and then she was just retrained to walk through very intensive physio.
"The fact that cognitively she was fine has really boosted the speed of her progress.
"Just by walking with splints, which are these plastic castings that are fitted to her, she's already learning the process of walking which hopefully will one day enable her to walk independently. People were amazingly generous with the fundraising and that has allowed us to help her come as far as she has in a couple of years.
"Those are the things that happened that sort of led to all this, you know? An interesting set of circumstances."
You can understand why, for Miller, professional rugby seems like a lifetime ago.
He wishes he'd had greater perspective as a young man, but that might have dimmed the edges of the 19-year-old student who drove from Sheffield to Leicester's training ground in his Honda Jazz and presented himself as an option for the first team.
Sent to the seconds, he impressed to such an extent that he became a regular starter in his second year; debuting for Ireland in 1997 and becoming the youngest player on that year's Lions series-winning squad; playing in the decisive second Test.
He went on to play 48 times for Ireland, returning home first to Ulster and then back to Leinster where he played in some big wins but was part of a team that never quite saw him fulfil his potential.
At 30, his body could have gone on for another couple of years but his mind wasn't willing.
"I felt being involved in that life probably wasn't for me," he explains.
"I wanted to do other things. I could have got another four or five years out of it, but I don't know if it would have served me in terms of tackling different areas and being able to thrive in relationships with my family and things like that.
"I probably felt it more difficult, I suppose, out of my comfort zone compared to what I'm doing now.
"I really love caring for people, and it's sort of fairly dog-eat-dog world in rugby. Not that I'm a softy, but just those things were in my head that I didn't realise at the time why I retired. Without being ungrateful for my former career, it was my gift to play rugby, but not so much my calling.
"I pretty much gave it my all. I wasn't doing much study when I was playing, I probably should have been.
"I regret that a little bit. It was all about playing for Ireland every week or getting on the Leinster team and was probably a very narrow perspective in terms of that youthful sort of outlook at that stage."
It was in retirement that he found his faith.
"I know that people tried to reach me earlier," he says. "In my teens, in school, a couple of people wanted to talk to me about starting Bible studies and those types of things.
"And I sort of took it on board but didn't really follow up with it. It really came to the crunch of, 'Am I going to retire?' 'Why do I want to retire?' Not really knowing why, but knowing that to move on and do the next thing - that came hand-in-hand with trying to search for something more at that stage when I was 30.
"So I found the church that I went to in Dublin and they were a great help in terms of helping me kind of let rugby go.
"Not that they told me to do that, it was just part and parcel of immersing myself in there.
"I find the stories, the story of Jesus, very compelling and very engaging. I believe things happen for a reason. For one reason or another, I've ended up in healthcare two months before this thing happens and that's because, basically, our backs were against the wall at the end of last year, so that would be an example of how I feel in my experience, my faith - everything has sort of happened in a flow.
"Not that things are easy, but certainly there's a hope there and it's the struggles that I would like to share with other people too.
"I found that a huge thing to fall back on, it really helped me because I know a lot of guys suffered since they retired and haven't had an easy transition. I didn't find it easy, but I had something to hold on to."
He believes the formative experience of playing for that star-studded Leicester team came with a price, in that the amount of rugby and the toughness of the games took a toll on his body and injuries affected the rest of his career.
Not that he has regrets.
"It was at the beginning of where the provinces started bearing fruit," he says. "I was at the perfect place with the Lions tour and then you're at another place in terms of the evolution of Leinster and ultimately where the professional game would take that province.
"Certainly in my coaching, I focus on being together and going through the ups and downs. It is just as much fulfilling as winning the prize at the end of the day. Perspective with that is important.
"Yes, I didn't win a Heineken Cup with Leinster but I got to be part of (it). I worked with great players. We had reasonable success. We were at the beginning of when things started to sort of happen for them.
"I don't regret that I wasn't playing in 2010 or 2011. I could have, but would I be any happier now? I'd have to say no. I'm pretty happy with the transition that I made.
"I wouldn't say I was disillusioned with the game. I just think that being involved in that professional world probably wasn't serving me.
"Maybe with a tiny bit more maturity I would have said I can handle this for a little bit longer. These are impossible questions to answer really, I just know that having found my faith it has been easier to leave the game that I loved and all I knew.
"Keeping my hand in coaching has been massive. It meant the fall-off wasn't so hard. Being involved in the amateur game for 13 years meant that it didn't end suddenly.
"I don't regret that at all. It was great playing for as long as I did. I treasure the memories that I have. I played in a lot of big games. That's all you could ever ask for, I suppose."
When he retired, he still had the training bug so he returned to the world of Gaelic football.
In his late teens while just starting out with Leicester, he won a Dublin U-21 title with Ballyboden St Enda's and so he donned the blue and white stripes once more.
Kieran Donaghy had just ripped up the footballing summer and big full-forwards were de rigueur. With his back-row frame, Miller fitted the bill and his form earned him a shot at the Dublin jersey in a pre-season friendly against Louth.
He sat beside a young Bernard Brogan in the Parnell Park changing-rooms before scoring three points, but the call from Paul Caffrey never came.
"I got the socks and ran home!" he laughs.
"I thought I had a shot, I scored three points but your awareness and the movement off the ball and the positioning was something I'd have loved more time to be taught. Getting the ball and putting it over the bar was OK for me, but I hadn't been involved for so long. It wasn't meant to be.
"I enjoyed the experience but I had to get real after that."
His life right now is very real.
"I really feel this my path in this world," he says. "I still love coaching, especially with the lads in Edenderry - that's something I want to keep going so it's good to be able to do both."