The first time that Eric Miller confronted England, on a February afternoon of dankest grey at Lansdowne Road four years ago, he lasted precisely 12 minutes. He is not terribly illuminating on the subject of the punch that put him in never-never land, for the very good reason that he has only the foggiest memory of the incident. "I was hit from behind, so I suppose it might have been one of my team-mates," the flanker recalled this week. And he grinned, as though to say: "There again, it might not."
Miller has taken more than his fair share of knock-out blows since he toured, as the 21-year-old baby of the party, with the 1997 Lions in South Africa. The majority of those blows have not been from behind: they have been front-on smacks between the teeth, and have occurred with such frequency that the extravagantly gifted Dubliner has come to be viewed as a world-beater in absentia, a talent unfulfilled.
Picked at No 8 for the first Lions Test in '97, he succumbed to a virus three days before the game and watched Tim Rodber gorge himself on the remains of his broken dream. He then left Leicester for Ulster, only to miss the registration deadline for the 1998-99 European Cup campaign. Predictably, Murphy's Law dictated that Ulster should hit their richest vein of form in a decade. They beat Toulouse (twice) and Stade Français to make the final, and then hammered Colomiers to take the trophy on a drippingly emotional day in Miller's native city. Frustrating? You could say.
Since then, injuries and selectors have betrayed him on any number of occasions. "There have been times when I had reasonable hopes of getting a chance with Ireland, and didn't get one," he said. "And there have been times when I've been given a chance, only to break down physically. There was a spell when I couldn't seem to get through a game without something happening – a pull here or a knock there. It used to get to me quite badly, but I'm older and wiser now. Everything went my way when I was playing Premiership rugby with Leicester at 19 and I made the Lions tour. Over the last couple of seasons, very little has gone my way. That's rugby. It's a matter of maturity, a matter of patience. You have to stick at it."
It may just be that the sporting gods are inclined to reward Miller for his forbearance by giving him an even break. An accomplished all-round games player who might easily have scaled more localised sporting heights as a Gaelic footballer, he has been a central figure in Leinster's startling rise to union prominence over the last three months – the Donnybrook side have yet to lose an inter-provincial, Celtic League or Heineken Cup game this term. He is cutting the hot stuff at international level, too; had it not been for David Wallace's eye-catching display on the open side for Ireland against Wales last weekend, his own performance at blind side would have earned him rather more plaudits than he received. Some of his work at the Millennium Stadium, particularly during the first half, was of the very highest calibre.
Back to '97 levels, then? "I'm getting there," he said. "Potentially, I could be a better player now, at 26, than I was at 21. What did I know then? I was playing first-team rugby for Leicester, a really big club, under Bob Dwyer, maybe the best coach in the world at that time. I was learning the professional ropes: how to train, what to eat, how to live right. But things were happening so fast, and I was involved in so many games, that I might easily have burned out had I stayed in England. My body was already beginning to suffer, and it's taken me a few years to get over it.
"When I saw that things were happening back home in terms of building up the provinces and contracting the players, I made the move. It was a lifestyle choice, as much as anything, and it's worked for me. I still have great feelings for Leicester and I knew when I was at Welford Road that they would go on to achieve great things. But if you're not absolutely happy, even in a winning side, it's not right to stay."
An ambitious man, Miller is nevertheless dismissive of a return to the Premiership; Dublin, boom town that it is, suits him perfectly, and besides, Leinster are winning almost as regularly as Leicester. The next trick is to help Ireland develop that same habit, although he accepts that England – albeit an England sans Johnson, Dallaglio and Vickery – pose a particularly serious problem this weekend. "There is some expectation out there," he said, "and that makes it doubly difficult for us. The Irish crowd always gets behind the team, and there will be quite an atmosphere in the old stadium on Saturday, thanks to our performance in Cardiff. But I suspect the expectation is slightly different this time.
"Traditionally, we struggle when our own folk think we're onto a winner: just look at what happened in Scotland last month, when we started as favourites and took a walloping. I don't think people imagine we're onto a winner this weekend. The supporters do not necessarily expect victory, but they do expect a good performance. So there will be some nerves in the dressing room, a flood of adrenalin and perhaps a little fear. But there will be a sense of freedom too, a knowledge that we can go out and play, and give it a real crack. If we can just put England on the back foot, who knows what might happen?"
It is a delight to see Miller back on the prowl, rising above the frenzy with his sophisticated ball-handling and pirouetting out of tackles with the elegance of a man half his size. His forthcoming contest with Richard Hill, another loose forward equipped with the rarest gifts of vision and artistry, should be something to behold. Always assuming, of course, that he is not punched into oblivion by someone or other.Reuse content