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'When I was on the trolley in Vincent's, I definitely didn't think I'd play again'

It’s been a long, hard road for Ireland star Alison Miller – but she’s delighted to be back in the green jersey.

FIRST AND FOREMOST, it’s good to be back.

A long, long road of recovery and rehabilitation followed a horror injury sustained this time last year. Ireland star Alison Miller was left contemplating retirement as she fractured both her tibia and fibula and suffered a compound fracture in her side’s Six Nations win over Italy on 11 February 2017.

Alison Miller Ireland star winger Alison Miller. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

A little under 12 months later and the Laois 34-year-old is back in the green jersey and was a shining light last weekend off the bench in Ireland’s heavy defeat to England. She’s been rewarded for her valiant efforts with a start against Scotland.

But back to last weekend first.

“Great to be back out on the pitch,” she smiles. “It makes all the lonely days that you were struggling worth it. There was some… well, a lot of really hard days.

“You’re wondering if you’re doing the right thing trying to get back,” the Connacht wing admits, delving into her age. This is her 10th Six Nations, and she has quite a few years — and caps — on the majority of Adam Griggs’ young squad at this stage.

“It was all worth it. It was just a great feeling to get out there after all the hard work and the bad day of last February that I endured. It was hugely satisfying to get back in the green jersey.”

Speaking of that bad day last February, she remembers everything. There were just three minutes on the clock when, a split-second later, Miller lay stretched out on the cold turf in severe pain, her screams heard around the ground.

“The drugs weren’t strong enough, no,” she laughs now. She remembers the move that was called, the action itself, the gut feeling and just knowing, deep down, what had happened. She couldn’t look.

“I just knew by the pain that it was broken.” Lying on the pitch, she made it known to the physio before getting confirmation, and then off to the hospital they went. “I was in huge pain, I was still roaring moves down the corridor in St Vincent’s to the disdain of many nurses and patients!”

Alison Miller goes off injured Miller being stretchered off last February. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

While she was making herself heard loud and clear, there was a quieter voice inside her head telling her this was it. Her 43rd cap could very well have been her last, the curtain coming down on a glittering career as the 2013 Grand Slam winner’s future hung by a thread.

Retirement was most definitely contemplated.

“When I was on the trolley in Vincent’s being brought in, I definitely didn’t think I’d play again,” she concedes. “In those moments, the pain is so immense you don’t see how you can get past that.

“Even the three, four, five weeks at home after, you’re still in that huge pain. The pain of getting up and down, you can’t see how you could go out and play a hugely contact sport again. It’s a tough game rugby, there’s injuries and not everyone is lucky enough to get back after an injury like that. Yeah, definitely, you would think about it.”

It’s all part and parcel of the game though. There are highs and lows, the lows make you more resilient and ultimately benefit you, giving you the mental toughness you need.

***

‘Ah, you’re done, yeah. You’re done.’

‘I saw it, you’re absolutely done.’

‘You’ll never get back to that level.’

She laughs now, but as she originally told The Irish Times’ Mary Hannigan last week, there were no shortage of doubters in the weeks after the career-threatening leg-break. 

Maybe it was her age, 33 at the time. Maybe it’s because she’s not professional. Maybe it’s because she’s a woman, she ponders. 

“Maybe that spurs you on, and you store it somewhere inside and use it to motivate yourself to get back. Not that you’re trying to prove them wrong, you don’t do it to prove anyone else wrong but I suppose it acts as a little bit of motivation too when people are saying that.”

One thing’s for sure: Alison Miller doesn’t owe the game anything, and vice versa, the game doesn’t owe Alison Miller anything. 

Alison Miller and Michela SillariCarrying against Italy, moments before the injury.Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

She’s represented her country with distinction since 2010 — at both Sevens and 15s, and also her clubs and province — pivotal in that memorable Grand Slam win in 2013, the 2014 World Cup campaign in which Ireland beat the Black Ferns (Miller crossed the line that day) and the 2015 Six Nations crown capture.

What ultimately brought her back? It wasn’t to prove the doubters wrong anyway.

Perhaps she didn’t want the lasting memory of Ali Miller to be that game. A career defined at the death by a devastating injury.

Maybe. She doesn’t think that way too much, but maybe.

“Maybe it’s somewhere deep in your psyche that you don’t want to go that way.” But at the end of the day it’s not really that. 

“You just want to get back and play.” Plain and simple. The love of the game. “You have a limited time that you can play at this level. I enjoy playing rugby.

“It’s a huge honour to wear a green jersey and be involved. It’s a huge privilege. When anything is taken away from you, it doesn’t matter in what walk of life, you really realise home much you miss something — and if you do miss it.

“I might have maybe not missed it, you know, being at that age and life moves on but I did. I really missed it. I missed performing at the high level essentially, that feeling when you go out onto the pitch and the adrenaline. And I suppose being part of a very tight-knit group.

“I don’t owe the game anything and the game doesn’t owe me anything so I could have stepped away if I wanted to. But, I actually felt… despite my age, I actually feel like I have a lot more in me.”

Alison Miller celebrates after the game After beating New Zealand in 2014. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Age is just a number after all.

“I feel as good as I did when I was younger. Sometimes age is a thing that we just use, we don’t think too much about it,” she continues, explaining that her father played inter-county football for Laois late on and lied about his age incase anyone thought differently.

“I feel like I have more to offer. Even though the girls I started playing with back in 2010 are gone, I still feel like I have loads to offer in terms of how I feel physically.

“We make a thing of age, ‘Oh, they’re that age’ but it’s rubbish if you think about it. It’s like being young. If you’re young and you’re good enough, you’re good enough. If you’re old and you’re good enough, you’re good enough. I don’t see why it makes a huge difference.”

Coming back into a much different, much younger squad has been weird she admits. Difficult at the start, it was almost like her first year all over again after being out of the loop for some time. 

From being an “individual athlete” for 10 months and linking back up with the squad for her first camp back was tough; physically and mentally draining. But she’s well back into the swing of things now.

Miller is more than happy to bring that experience. She’s been through tough times and difficult situations both on and off the pitch, and beatings like Friday night’s 51-7 humbling to England happen. That’s sport.

“It was a tough night,” she frowns. “I said it to the girls, ‘There’s actually been worse defeats than this, believe it or not.’ Some of the girls mightn’t have known that, but there’s been worse and they make you.

“It should hurt, but you hold that in there,” she says as she clutches at her chest, “to really spur you on and become a very tight-knit group. You use those defeats to drive everything that you do and try and become the team that you want to become. ”

She — like the others involved — will draw the positives going forward, and focus on the brighter spells of play. The scrum and the movement of the ball were both huge positives, it’s just “the last part of the puzzle” that let them down.

Alison Miller and Jenny Murphy dejected Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

That can be worked on, she assures. As scrum coach and ex-Ireland and Leinster prop Mike Ross said in the changing room afterwards, he’s been there with the men. In 2012, they lost 60-0 to the All Blacks in New Zealand and look at them now.

“There has been worse defeats than that over the years but those teams grew as well the way this team will,” Miller smiles.

And final word from Ross himself on the woman of the moment.

“I thought she played a blinder,” he grins, “Ali, when she got on. It was great to see her back.

“It says a lot. The experience she brings to the group and of course the quality that she has delivered for us, and has delivered over the years, is an essential part of the squad.”

That it is. And will continue to be.

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Emma Duffy

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