A passion for sport runs deep in the family, Grace Miller tells Pundit Arena.
There’s Grace’s older sister, Alison. The Ireland legend, who won 47 caps for her country and was part of some of the greatest days in Irish women’s rugby, announced her retirement last year after 10 years of service to the cause.
Her late father, Bobby, was a Laois footballing great while her mother is a PE teacher. So it’s little surprise that Grace’s journey has been heavily influenced by a love of sport.
“I suppose we did [have a sports-mad house] but I didn’t really think anything of it,” Miller says.
“You didn’t think it was particularly sports-mad, it just felt normal. We would never have thought anything of it. My Mam is a PE teacher and our Dad was a club and Intercounty GAA player and manager. So they would have been involved growing up themselves, then we came along they just introduced us to sport and everyone, like all my siblings, would have all kind of done numerous sports throughout the years.
The last 12 months have been a “whirlwind” according to Grace. The 27-year-old has been enjoying a meteoric rise which saw her make her Leinster debut at the beginning of the interprovincial championships in August.
She started in every game and played across multiple positions in the backline where she scored two tries as Leinster eased to the championship title with a win over Connacht.
Her excellent form and clear comfort at this level were rewarded by Ireland head coach Adam Griggs as Miller was invited into the national squad for training camps in Scotland and France in November.
“It has been [special] I suppose. I haven’t really stopped to think about it yet but it’s been a bit of whirlwind because I went from one to the other, straight from the back of the Interpros into Ireland. I suppose starting out with Leinster, I was just delighted to even make the squad and get training with the squad.
“Coming up to the games I was delighted to start the first game and as it kind of went on, I ended up starting and playing in all five games. It was a great experience and I got the chance to play in a couple of different positions as well in different games.”
Miller’s modesty shines through when the remarkable rate of her progression is put to her. She admits she was surprised when she was called into the Ireland squad, although her family didn’t possess the same level of shock as she did.
“I was very surprised! But a couple of people, family and things weren’t surprised, [although] I think they were just saying that! It was just straight after the Interpros, I was just taking it all in because we done so well in that and then just getting the opportunity to be involved with the Irish squad was great.
“We had a lot of playing done over the summer which meant that you were going into it in a good place in terms of fitness. And then just getting to play with a lot of players I would have played with in Leinster but also the different provinces in Ireland and the top clubs in England. Just playing with those elite players just really brings you on and you have to up your standards and up your game to fit in with them.”
That elusive first Ireland cap evaded Miller in November. Griggs’ side played one November Test match against Wales ahead of what is a massive season for the national side where they will be looking to secure qualification for the 2021 World Cup in New Zealand.
Although Miller didn’t make it into the final matchday 23, she does her best not to be downbeat and instead takes pride in how much she has achieved over the last year.
“I suppose it’s a little bit different for uncapped games but I was hoping obviously that I would be involved in the Wales game and then I wasn’t. I was trying not to be too disappointed and just keep holding out for the future and just trying to get better. I can kind of understand and see reasons why I wouldn’t be starting or on the squad so it’s just all about keeping improving.
“At the start of the year, even in the Energia AIL from last season, I wouldn’t have always been starting in those games even. So to see the progression throughout the summer and then into the season has been good for me to look back on because you kind of get caught up in it and think ‘Oh, god, I wasn’t on that squad, I must be useless’ but then you think back to a few months ago where you’re fighting for your place on your club team.”
Miller mentions “commitment” multiple times when attempting to explain her recent development which is all the more impressive considering this is her first year working full-time as a dietician after spending six years in third-level education – four years as an undergraduate and two years completing a Masters.
Making a conscious effort and commitment to focus on training, gym and fitness has undoubtedly brought her on to another level but it’s difficult to ignore the potential impact of having an Ireland rugby legend as an elder sibling.
It’s clear that Grace has a close relationship with her sister, Alison, and it was the 47-times capped international which introduced her to the sport in the first place.
“I think Alison started, when she was playing in Portlaoise, she would have coaxed me to going over there. I wasn’t too pushed about it at the start but I played a couple of games and she just told me to get the ball and run. Not go near the rucks or anything like that, just keep it simple!”
“When you see someone so close to you doing it, subconsciously, it plants a seed that you can do the same thing as well,” Miller added. “She is very supportive in terms of rugby and is always trying to get me to get better and enjoy it. It’s good, she’s useful!”
The relationship between the pair is best summed up by the women’s interprovincial final between Connacht and Leinster.
With Alison lining out for Connacht and Grace for Leinster, the younger sibling reveals how although the sisters were playing against each other in a major final, Alison was offering her younger sister tips and advice during the action on the pitch.
“Yeah, funnily enough, we haven’t been on the pitch together that much. Obviously she’s been playing a long time and I’ve been playing a while. Playing against each other was a strange scenario but there was a couple of times on the pitch where she was still trying to get me to keep the head up when things were going wrong even when we were playing against each other!
“So it’s good to have that! She’s old and wise and likes to pass on all her knowledge and things to me so I’m lucky.”
Alison announced her retirement from international rugby at the end of the 2019 Six Nations. It was a special moment for the Miller clan as Alison recovered from a horrific lower leg injury which included a fractured fibula and tibula, in addition to a compound fracture of her ankle. Alison suffered that injury against Italy in the Six Nations in 2018 but she returned a year later so she could sign off on an incredible career on her own terms.
Not many people predicted she would ever make a comeback but as Grace explains, the majority don’t know her sister like she does.
“That [returning from injury] was something that she was determined to do. I think other people maybe would have doubted whether she would get back or not. People on the outside thinking with an injury like that, you’ll never play again but I suppose those people didn’t know her well enough.
“I kind of always knew she would get back. Even now, she’s captaining Belvo this year, played with the BaBaas last year and playing with Connacht and everything. She’s still going very strong and there are no signs of her stopping yet!”
For Grace, she will be looking to embark on her own journey in a green shirt and the upcoming 2020 Six Nations is very much on the radar.
She has been included in Griggs’ 38-woman squad for the upcoming championship and is one of five uncapped players.
That international debut is within reach.
“2020 hopefully will be a good year if I can stay within the Irish setup and keep chasing the green jersey, getting my first cap would be a big goal I suppose. That’s one of them. And then being able to win the Energia AIL with Belvo and looking at next season with Leinster, keeping up our basis of what we had this year.
“That was obviously my first year this year so it would be nice to return to that and get back to it as well. That’s all for now! A few things to think about!”