Miller seeks to cement place in Ireland's heart

Versatile forward's recall against South Africa is a welcome surprise after a rugby union career plagued by illness and injury. By Jimmy Meagan in Dublin

Over the past four years Eric Miller has experienced a roller-coaster of emotions. The high of receiving his first cap for Ireland, against Italy in 1997, was quickly dampened when injury struck. And it has been a similar situation ever since, a constant recurrence of injury and illness which have combined to hamper him in an on-going struggle to secure a permanent place in the national side's starting line-up.

Over the past four years Eric Miller has experienced a roller-coaster of emotions. The high of receiving his first cap for Ireland, against Italy in 1997, was quickly dampened when injury struck. And it has been a similar situation ever since, a constant recurrence of injury and illness which have combined to hamper him in an on-going struggle to secure a permanent place in the national side's starting line-up.

The number of occasions he has spent on the substitutes' bench have been so frequent that he was unflatteringly handed the nickname of "The Judge". This Sunday's call-up for Ireland against South Africa at Lansdowne Road, marks only his 21st international cap, but it could represent a coming of age at this level.

"Hopefully I'll be able to put a few good games together," he says. "I have avoided injury so far this season. But I'm keeping my fingers crossed. It's impossible to be at your best if you're in and out of a side."

Miller's chequered career should serve as a reminder to team-mates and opponents of the need for patience. "It was depressing missing so many games," adds Miller. "All you want to do was play. But you have to sit tight and accept your situation. It's not easy."

His collection of caps would have been doubled but for setbacks. Formidable rivals, of course, didn't help.

"There were about six to seven back row forwards playing, all of them in international class," he says. "If you are as regularly injured as I was it's no help. It affects your confidence. It's difficult to pick up the pieces."

Back row forwards of the calibre of the former Ireland captain, Dion O'Cuinneagain, Victor Costello, Andy Ward, David Corkery and Trevor Brennan made the Irish back row area one of the most competitive sectors in the team.

But Miller's litany of ill-luck graphically illustrates the fickleness of fate. And it is also testimony to his resilience and resolve. His first cap was marred by injury. Three caps later injury intervened again against England. But a mere four internationals, two of which ended prematurely for Miller, were enough to convince the selectors that he was good enough to go to South Africa with the celebrated Lions in 1997.

Miller's form with Leicester was a key factor as well. Miller the Tiger had become a young Lion at the tender age of 21. In a few short years the now 25-year-old Dubliner had captured one of the northern hemispheres plum prizes, a place in the Lions touring party.

But the fates contrived to treat him harshly once again. And they did so with vengeance. The chance of playing in the first Test against the 1995 world champions was blighted by a bout of flu.

One of the singular successes of the Lions midweek dirt trackers, Miller got a run in the second Test but was ruled out of the third as injury came to haunt him again. "Yes, I've had my share of injuries. They were mainly shoulder and ankle problems. A bad virus in 1998 lost me quite a few caps. But going to South Africa with the Lions is a fond memory. But I had some frustrations thrown in."

The old enemy continued to dog Miller and apart from missing a number of internationals, injury prevented him from going on Ireland's South African safari in 1998 and an Australian sojourn the following year.

He takes some light relief from reliving the travails of rugby life to recall his early sporting highlights as a Gaelic footballer. "I won minor and under-21 winners medals with Ballyboden - St Enda's. I enjoyed playing the game very much," he says.

Miller also played rugby and cricket and Wesley College. Later he spent a year with Old Wesley, three years as a Tiger before returning home to Ireland to link up with Terenure and Ulster. The Ulster chapter was yet another nightmare. He joined the 1999 European Cup champions-in-waiting only to discover he was not eligible to play in the competition.

"I didn't sign in time for Ulster. Rules are rules but it was a very disappointing experience. My only regret is that I didn't get a few more games with the province. I was given a warm welcome by the Ulster players. They were a great bunch of lads. But my real regret was missing out on their great European adventure," Miller said.

He ponders briefly on his three years with Leicester, one of England's top teams. "I knew something was wrong. I was missing the social life of Dublin. I didn't really have too many friends. Most of my time was taken up with training and playing. But there were some good times too at Leicester. I went to Loughborough College to study for a PE degree and I attended Sheffield's Hallam University."

Soon after he had named Miller in his line-up to face the Springboks, the Ireland coach, Warren Gatland, claimed: "Eric is the right man to play against South Africa. He knows a thing or two about them." And Miller's response to his unexpected selection is typical of this modest, versatile sportsman. "I was very surprised. But it's great to be back in the side as a starter."

Miller, as you would expect, is optimistic about Ireland's prospects? "We have a young, talented side. We gave the South Africans a good run in our last game. There are a lot of changes, but I think this is a better team. We will certainly have a crack at them."

It is a big, big game on Sunday for Ireland, who have not beaten the Springboks in 35 years. Miller's dashing style, ball-handling skills and pace should be a significant help.

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