Monday 22 January 2018

Wing star, Alison Miller, takes it all in her stride

Growing up, Alison Miller never dreamt she'd be a rugby hero

Alison Miller only discovered her talent for rugby while at college and now she is preparing to face New Zealand in the World Cup on Tuesday. Picture credit: Aurélien Meunier / SPORTSFILE
Alison Miller only discovered her talent for rugby while at college and now she is preparing to face New Zealand in the World Cup on Tuesday. Picture credit: Aurélien Meunier / SPORTSFILE

Aisling Crowe

If this were a normal August Sunday, Alison Miller would be rolling out of bed, her body protesting a little about rugby's pre-season aches and pains, maybe pulling on her football boots for St Brigid's in the Laois county championship. But this is not an average summer for Miller or any of her Ireland team-mates. Instead she and the Irish team are ensconced in French rugby's headquarters preparing to face New Zealand in the Women's Rugby World Cup.

There is nothing average about the 29-year-old from Laois or the journey that has taken her from college student to World Cup star in a few short years. Growing up in the countryside, Miller was a sporty child, playing basketball, running and performing ballet before adding volleyball to her mix in secondary school.

Rugby and the World Cup were not in her dreams.

The University College Cork student only laced up her Gaelic football boots at the age of 21, although her family's history is intricately woven throughout the tapestry of Laois GAA. The rugby star is the daughter of a Laois footballing legend, the late Bobby Miller. Childhood kickabouts under the expert guidance of a man who was decorated in the blue and white of his county, helped Leinster win the Railway Cup and starred in a Timahoe side, along with his brothers, helped to hone her footballing skills.

She remembers a huge chunk of her early years spent travelling the country, caught up in the excitement and passion of whichever team her father was managing at the time.

"Even though I wasn't playing, football was a huge part of my life. I spent my childhood going to exciting Eire Óg matches and then my father was managing Carlow, Kilcock and a good few other teams, so football was massive in my life. I would always have been kicking a ball around with my father and sister Grace and brother Barry in the garden and that would have taught me to be comfortable with the ball," she recalls. Now, as she is about to enter her fourth year studying PE, she understands the subtle benefits those family games have on her rugby career.

"I know that sounds simplistic but if you're comfortable under a high ball then using it becomes second nature. My father would have helped me with sprinting because I was more into athletics then and that helps me on the wing. In a football sense the ball-handling skills he passed on when I was younger have definitely helped. We spent hours out kicking the ball and that informal practice is key to success in sport, it's the best really, because you don't even realise you're learning and it becomes a natural habit."

Miller added to her family's Laois story, winning a Leinster title with the county in 2010 in her first full season with the team. She played just one more league campaign before the demands of playing rugby for Connacht and Ireland proved impossible to reconcile with inter-county football, but she is proud and glad to have been able to write that chapter, to cross the white line from 
spectator to player and succeed. That she finds herself in Marcoussis in early August - and not Cavan - is where the extraordinary twist in this tale comes.

By one of those coincidences that come to be known as fateful, she discovered rugby and an immense talent for the sport while a student in WIT. An accidental rugby career took flight in 2009 when she starred on the wing for Portlaoise and caught the attention of Connacht.

A year after that first foray into club rugby, Miller was called up to the Irish squad and she made her Six Nations debut against Italy in February 2010. That was the beginning of a journey that has brought her all the way through a historic Grand Slam campaign, in which she was the leading try scorer, to the cusp of her first tangle with the Black Ferns, on Tuesday evening.

Domination doesn't come close to depicting the stranglehold that the New Zealand women have on world rugby. Reigning world champions since 1998, they have lost to only two teams since 1990 - the USA and England. Facing such behemoths of the sport for the first time is a daunting task but Miller takes heart from St George's slaying of the dragon in the winter of 2012.

In the months before Ireland stunned England, winning the Triple Crown and laying the path to the Grand Slam, the English girls had gained a modicum of revenge on the Black Ferns for a narrow defeat in the 2010 World Cup final. New Zealand were sent packing from England, with one draw out of six matches the most threadbare of comfort blankets to wrap around them on the flight home.

"You always want to play the best teams in the world and they are the games you really enjoy playing. You have to raise your standards against those teams, that's something that we always like to do and we won't be lacking in confidence. It's a game we are definitely looking forward to but we won't be favourites. It is a very exciting prospect," she says of fronting up to the haka.

The exploits of the current team have transformed perceptions of women's rugby. Before last year's Grand Slam triumph, whenever people heard Miller played the game they would assume it was just that, a fun game of tag rugby. Now there are no assumptions. In one sense, that is an even greater victory than an unbeaten Six Nations campaign. Miller wants that success and their World Cup odyssey to leave a lasting legacy for Irish rugby.

"There is a profile now because of the success of the team and there are more girls playing in clubs. The participation levels of girls in rugby have increased and more people know about the game. The more younger girls train and join clubs then that will improve the standards in the future."

As a student in St Leo's College, Carlow she was among the hundreds of girls who sat rapt in nervous anticipation one September morning in the school's assembly room, watching Sonia O'Sullivan's Olympic dream finally come true under Sydney's stars. Miller was a successful athlete as a teenager and O'Sullivan was one of her idols.

It's the case for many girls across the country who had individual stars like Derval O'Rourke or Katie Taylor as icons, but for the girls who dream of pulling on the green jersey for an Irish team there were no women held up as examples to emulate. Until, that is, Miller and the rugby team catapulted into the public consciousness. Their idols had to be men. Now with a Grand Slam winning rugby team and an under 19 soccer team that reached the last four of the European Championships pioneering a new frontier, the landscape of Irish female sport is being reshaped.

"Women in Ireland always perform very highly, we have always had successful female athletes so I suppose we might not get the credit we deserve, but hopefully it can be a big summer for Irish women's team sports," says the winger.

Miller's late conversion to rugby ensured she missed the bad days of the past, and the success she has helped achieve should ensure there will be no return to sleeping on cold floors and train treks across Europe for Ireland's women warriors. The man who did more than most to make a thousand changes, small and enormous, will depart the scene when Ireland's World Cup involvement comes to an end. Philip Doyle has been more than just the most successful coach in Irish women's sport, but sentimentality is absent for now. It is the professional way, his way, their way.

"It is his last competition in charge and hopefully it will be a great send-off for him. He has put in so much unseen and unheralded work, travelling up and down to different clubs doing skills sessions or whatever it is. There are loads of things like that which he does and nobody even knows about it and there's lots of stuff he does behind the scenes, which we don't even know about.

"It's definitely a big motivator to send him off on a high but you have to concentrate on the game. If he wasn't going it would be played the same way, so we have to focus on the game for him and for ourselves and just keep that in mind."

Together they have created the best Irish team and brought women's rugby to a different plane. Fitness levels, silky skills and sharp instincts have been allied to a fun atmosphere in a positive and relaxed camp. They are not afraid of the challenge posed by the Southern Alps in the Parisian suburbs. Climbing the highest peaks is routine now.

The long summer of preparation is well and truly over, the opening game against the USA behind them and what lies in wait, well, that can wait. It may not have been her dream but Miller is definitely living one now.

"I didn't play rugby growing up so I never really dreamt of playing in a World Cup so it is a bit surreal in that regard, especially. It is a great experience to be over here and in a World Cup. It's something I'm very proud of and enjoying for myself and the team. You are also representing your club and your province as well, so it is a great honour."

From the football fields of Laois to the haka in France, Tuesday will be just another extraordinary day in the life of Alison Miller.

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