Stephen Barry | News Editor
On Wednesday night Alison Miller will board a chartered flight in Dublin, and set course for Pau in the South of France. She will arrive at the Pyrénéen airport that night, and settle down in her hotel room two days before her big game on Friday.
It will be far from an epic journey, but it is just what the Irish Women’s Rugby team have come to expect and appreciate.
Such organisation has become commonplace for the Grand Slam champions, however it was that same trip to France two years previously which caused the change in attitude and increasingly professional treatment towards the women’s game.
Back then the IRFU were cutting corners with the Women’s finances, and the cheapest travel route was considered the optimal one. They were flown to Paris, 800 kilometres away from Pau, where they were caught in the rush hour traffic. They missed their train to Pau by two hours, and eventually managed to squeeze onto an overnight train, arriving at 7am.
“We only got 3 hours sleep before the game, which we lost by a point,” adds Miller, “so there was a lot of controversy and the IRFU had to deal with the consequences of that.
“It was probably the best thing that could have happened for us, because everything improved for us after that; the finances, the structure, the support behind us… It was probably a blessing in disguise even though it didn’t seem like that at the time.”
After that debacle the IRFU brought in a rule that teams have to arrive 48 hours in advance of any away game, and such a change has facilitated Ireland’s transformation from perennial underdogs to serious contenders.
“That trip is gone now, and it won’t ever be the case again.”
Indeed that trip has been pushed further from the mind by the side’s immediate upturn in fortunes, which seemed to snowball with every passing game since France 2012 until the following year’s unexpected Grand Slam victory.
“It was something that was never really within our reach for a long time because we had never beaten England and I was never on a team to beat France.
“We beat England in the second game, which suddenly set up a Triple Crown, which we had never won either. And all of a sudden we were in a game against France, and then the Grand Slam game and the 6 Nations too; it was great to win because we had no expectations to do it.”
On Friday Ireland know what they need to do to even stand a chance of retaining their 6 Nations title: beat France by 19 points; but even then they will have to hope England don’t go to town on Italy and rack up a half-century winning margin.
Miller is happy enough with their performances this year even though they didn’t retain their Grand Slam; but then again who does?
They lost to a decent English side while kicking away too much of the ball, and will look to learn from those mistakes for 80 minutes of ball-in-hand, attacking rugby against France.
Ireland will likely need Miller to score tries to achieve that, but that is something the speedster has done regularly from her perch on the wing. She scored a remarkable hat-trick against England last year on her way to being the championship’s top try-scorer, and she remains joint-top of the pile this year after three touchdowns.
She has become so good that it seems impossible that the 29-year-old could have only taken up the sport seven years previously, when studying in WIT, and committed to it in 2009.
“I thought women playing rugby was mad; I used see them train and think ‘oh my God, what are they doing?’
“But I went down eventually and I loved it straight away. I loved that freedom that you wouldn’t have in other sports.”
She was generally a sporting child though, and goes through a roll-call of the sports she played.
She didn’t just play them though, she was a born winner. She won a Leinster title with the Laois footballers (having again taken up that sport in WIT), wore the Irish singlet as a runner, and holds national medals for gymnastics, basketball and hockey.
These days Miller is in her third year of Sports Studies in UCC, and in her first two years she has helped take women’s rugby in the college to a new level. She was the first recipient of a Sports Star Award from that club and has taken on the occasional training session to help develop the squad.
“Nearly all the girls who took it up this year are new, so it’s a real transition year. But they’re going to be so good in the next year or two because they’re so talented.
“The standard of women’s college rugby has really improved, especially since I was in college in Waterford. What you’d find now when you go to the first day of college training are girls that’d played underage rugby, and that’s something I wouldn’t have seen in Waterford.”
Miller set up the underage girls team in her hometown club of Portlaoise too, but that seems a million miles away from the arenas which Miller has played in recently, with a game in Twickenham followed by a visit to the Aviva Stadium.
“It was indescribable to be able to play in those places, especially having been to the Aviva for men’s games; to hear your name being called out by the same announcer was amazing. It motivates you to play better when you’re playing in stadiums like that.”
It has been hard to hit the heights of last year but there’s plenty of time to change that. Sevens rugby remains an option for Miller, although the immediate target on the horizon is the World Cup.
That tournament will be held in France too and come August, Miller and Ireland will have left no stone unturned in their preparations.
As she says herself;
“from missing the train to getting chartered flights, we’ve come a long way.”
And plenty more air miles yet to be clocked up.