People, Alison Miller confirms, can be strange.
“Ah, that’s you finished now, you won’t get back.”
“I saw what happened you, you’re definitely done.”
“That was career-ending, wasn’t it?”
“Would you be able to get back to the same level? I doubt it.”
So, at a time when she needed all the encouragement and positive thoughts she could muster she was bumping in to people on the street for whom sensitivity was an alien concept.
“And you really didn’t need to be hearing all that, especially in those early days,” she says, “and especially when you’re on crutches just struggling to get from A to B. It was funny, I got a lot of that. I don’t know if it was because of my age, I was 33 then, because I was a woman so I wasn’t professional, it wasn’t a job. I don’t know. It was such a strange reaction. For me, listening to that was the hardest point in it all.”
The problem was that they were saying what she was thinking herself after she had suffered a horrendous injury on her 43rd cap for Ireland: the winger fracturing her fibula and tibia and sustained a compound ankle fracture minutes in to the Six Nations game against Italy in Donnybrook last February.
She couldn't bring herself to even look at her shattered leg, all she recalls is the savage, searing pain and the shock on the faces of those around her. Some of her happiest times had been out on a rugby pitch, like in 2013 when she scored a hat-trick of tries against England in Ireland's Grand Slam-winning campaign, or when her late try in the 2014 World Cup against New Zealand sent the team on its way to its most famous victory.
This day, though, was a nightmare.
“I thought that was it, I’m done, I’d not play again. There was my age, the severity of the injury. I’d had a lot of operations on knee injuries, hands, broken arms, but this one, ah the pain, I can’t even describe it, to be honest. And it was still immense for the few weeks after. You just don’t see yourself coming back from that.”
As a PE teacher, it impacted on her life away from rugby too, Miller, a Portlaoise native, having to take time off until she was relatively mobile again. “And the lack of mobility was the biggest thing for me, you just couldn’t get around, you couldn’t walk, you couldn’t drive, you became very dependent on people bringing you to the places you needed to go. It was nearly like being a teenager again, there was a real loss of independence. From being so used to being so active, being on the go all the time, training and playing and all that, suddenly . . . there’s only so much of Netflix you can watch after a while.”
It was only when the pain began to ease that her thoughts began to clear, Miller even managing to view her lay-off as a blessing in disguise. “I’d been playing with Ireland since 2010, with the Sevens since 2012, so many years of playing and training and travelling. I’d a lot of mileage, I suppose, and that definitely takes its toll after a while, especially when you’re not a professional and you have a job to do as well.
“So the time out gave me a chance to refresh and re-energise, even if it happened in the cruellest possible way. It just gave me a different perspective, you kind of realise what a privilege it is to have been playing at the level I had reached. Oftentimes if something you love is taken away from you, no matter what walk of life, it’s only then you realise how much you need and miss it.”
And agonisingly slow as her recovery might have been after her initial surgery, each bit of progress was giving her more heart, to the point where she began to think the unthinkable: maybe she could play rugby again?
“You just start to get a little bit of hope. From going on crutches, to getting your leg to 50 per cent weight-bearing, to walking on it, all those small bits of progress, you begin to see the possibility of getting back again. It was slow and frustrating, it was lonely at times too, there’ve been hard moments, tough rehab sessions, there was a lot of struggling, wondering whether you were doing the right thing pushing yourself that hard.
"But lots of people supported me along the way, like my boyfriend, who was great at helping me keep a positive outlook, and all the staff and students at Athy College where I work. There were my club coaches at Old Belvedere, Jo Montgomery, the physio with the IRFU. Joey Carbery Snr [who was coaching with Athy Rugby Club], Corey Carty who works with Leinster Rugby, all these people are willing to help you if you're willing to help yourself."
And once a week Miller worked with Phil Healy and her coach Shane McCormack on her running technique and speed work. “It was good to have company, good to be around a high-performance athlete like Phil, to see how she trains, her approach to it. I’ve known Shane a long time, he’s helped me out over the years, before the 2017 World Cup, before last year’s Six Nations. Come September he was on to me. ‘When are you good to go? We’ll try and get you back on the pitch.’
Come December 15th, Miller was coming off the bench for Old Belvedere against UL Bohemians in Limerick. She was back.
How did it feel?
“There definitely was a bit of doubt before the game, a bit of fear and anxiety. Would I be able for the physicality? Would my leg even hold up? You’d keep thinking what happened the last time you were out there. But once I got my first tackle in, my first hit, the first time getting hit, then there was just relief and happiness. The leg was fine, I was back, I could enjoy it again. And even though I really missed all the camaraderie of my team-mates while I was out, more than anything I missed playing. The sheer love of it.
“It was funny though, people were saying to me, ‘God, what an achievement to get back’, but I’d be a lot harder on myself. For me, it’s not just about playing, it’s about playing well. You start thinking about your fitness, your skill levels and the abilities you feel like you’ve lost. I’m still not where I want to be. But I have to remind myself how bad a break it was, that there was a long time when I couldn’t even walk, never mind run.”
She credits the home she grew up in for the drive she found to come back, her late father Bobby, a Laois footballing great, both as a player and a manager, her mother Carol, also a PE teacher who was a fine gymnast and runner. “I suppose it seeps in to your psyche as a child when you’re in a house like that, you’re driven. I played lots of sports growing up – basketball, volleyball, hockey, gymnastics and later on football – but I think it was athletics that gave me that foundation to be so driven. You have to be absolutely at your best, you’re not on a team where others can carry you. You’re running for PBs, you’re not just competing against everyone else, you’re competing against yourself, always pushing yourself to the max.”
And that drive had her back in a green shirt again on January 20th when she played in Ireland's Six Nations warm-up victory over Wales. There were lots of new faces on her return, coach Adam Griggs having named eight uncapped players in his squad of 29 for the campaign. Among those included was another Portlaoise woman, Emma Hooban who made her senior debut last November.
“And I coached Emma when she was 12 . . . so I’m definitely feeling old,” Miller laughs. “But there’s lots of new energy and enthusiasm, which is brilliant. And just because you have new players doesn’t mean you aren’t going in with the same expectations. You’re always aiming to win.”
A dearth of club and international fixtures since her return has given Miller limited game time, so she is being eased back by Griggs, taking her place on the bench – alongside Hooban – for Friday’s Six Nations opener against England in Donnybrook, almost a year since she sustained her injury at the same ground.
“Hopefully I’ll get on the pitch and, if I do, it would be a very proud moment. It took one hell of an effort to get there, and yeah, to be honest I never thought I’d play rugby again, never mind having the opportunity to be involved with Ireland again. I missed it so much. It’s good to be back.”
She’s definitely not done.