It’s Miller Time! Just don’t tell the cows…
Photo: Clay Cross / SPORTSPICS
“There are three certainties in life – death, taxes and the cows need milking every day!”
It was this throwaway line that, despite my attempts to unearth every small detail about his rugby life thus far, perhaps encapsulates Will Miller more than anything else.
The Northern Suburbs skipper – still only 23-years-old – has already packed quite a bit in to his CV in his relatively short time in the game. A 1st grade debut at 19 came off the back of a couple of years on the Aussie Sevens circuit straight out of school, before two seasons of NRC footy with the NSW Country Eagles – one as vice-captain – and a debut captaincy season this year that has seen him lead the Shoremen all the way to this afternoon’s semi-final with Southern Districts.
But it is the fact that he has managed to achieve all that while being a mainstay for the family business that makes it all the more impressive. And it’s no ordinary family business. The Millers own a dairy farm down in Berry, 2hrs south of Sydney, and Will has a very hands-on role with the day-to-day running of it, to the point where he racks up some pretty impressive mileage on a weekly basis in order to meet the demands of his roles both on and off the field.
“I drive up to training and back on Tuesdays and Thursdays and for games on the weekend, or I stay at a mate’s house on Thursday and Friday before a match and drive straight home afterwards on Saturday night,” Miller told Rugby News this week.
“I’m up at 5-5.30am every morning depending on what day it is. If it’s a training day I get up earlier because we have to milk the cows in the afternoon before I drive in to the city but if I’m pretty tired my Dad sometimes lets me sleep in til 7!”
Born in Nowra, Miller grew up in Berry where sport, and rugby in particular, was always likely to play a big part in his life. Dad John racked up 150 games for the Shoalhaven Rugby Club and also represented the NSW Country team, while his great uncle Gus Miller represented the NSW Country league side.
“I used to love watching Dad play rugby so I guess I was always going to gravitate towards that,” he explains. “But growing up in a country town you’ve got your league team and your cricket team, and my sisters played netball too. We’re just a family that love sport, and that was also a way to get away from the farm for a Saturday afternoon!”
It was no surprise then, that Will’s first foray into rugby was with the Shoalhaven club. And in a scenario that has repeated itself time and again, he had to get used to punching above his weight from a very early age.
“I played in the under 9’s for Shoalies when I was about five-years-old,” recalls Miller. “They were short so Dad asked me if I wanted to play and I was pretty keen. I loved it, loved the club and went on to play there right through until I was 17 and we were lucky enough to win a heap of Premierships.
“After I turned 17 I went to Scots College in Sydney but I used to play a bit of 1st grade with Shoalies when I came back home for the holidays etc. I used to play against the men, which was good fun, and probably gave me a lot of confidence because the next year at school, the rugby was easier. They were big boys I was facing but they weren’t men.”
His burgeoning career accelerated pretty dramatically from that point on. He played GPS 1’s at 18 followed by Combined States, NSW Schoolboys and a run in the Australian Sevens side that won a bronze medal at the Junior Commonwealth Games. That in turn led to his elevation into the men’s Sevens side as an injury replacement for a tournament in Dubai, but his performances impressed enough to earn him a two-year contract on the World Sevens circuit where he played nine tournaments as well as two more in Oceania.
He also won the coveted Rugby Press International ‘Bronze Boot’ award in 2011 for ‘the most constructive player in a test series’ for Australia Schools against New Zealand. Previous winners include George Smith, Phil Waugh, David Pocock, Rob Horne and Liam Gill for Australia, and Jeff Wilson, Carlos Spencer, Jerry Collins, Liam Messam, Victor Vito, Sam Cane and Ardie Savea from the other side of the ditch. Illustrious company indeed.
By this time, his talents had alerted the Sydney club rugby scene, and it was Northern Suburbs that came calling first, and a battle-hardened, ambitious and fearless young Miller surpassed all expectations.
“Scotty Fava (head coach at the time) came down to Berry to ask me to come and play at Norths,” says Miller. “I’d already played grade in my local comp so I didn’t really want to go back to colts and I told him that. But I weighed 84 kilos at the time and he told me that I had to be 92 kilos if I wanted to play grade. I didn’t gain any more weight but I told him I had in pre-season and I ended up starting the first game of the season against Eastwood in 1st grade and got man of the match!”
Around 75 games later, 60 in 1st grade, Miller is a standout performer in the Shute Shield. His consistency of performance in the red and black no.7 jersey, his work rate, bravery, ability over the ball, speed around the ruck and in open field, and his offloading and handling skills, have seen him rightly revered within club rugby circles and added to the short-list of potential Super Rugby players.
He’s also old school tough. After breaking his hand in round five last season he was told he’d be out for up to six weeks. He didn’t miss a game for the rest of the campaign. “We were short of numbers so I needed to be there,” he reasons.
His efforts across the season saw him go within a whisker of winning the Ken Catchpole Medal for the best and fairest in the competition, and his stellar performances again in 2016 have seen him listed as one of 10 final candidates for this year’s award to be announced tomorrow evening.
But in what appears to be a recurring theme when talk of his possible ascension to the professional ranks comes up, it is only his size that is a stumbling block. In fact, his first potential exposure to the next level was kyboshed for exactly that reason.
“I went down to the Melbourne Rebels for a week to train with them when they had a lot of injuries before a game against the Bulls back in 2012. It was between myself and two other no.7’s for a place on the bench but they said they wanted bigger players to play the Bulls and that I was just too small.”
Which is odd when you look at the size of some of the Super Rugby opensides currently running around in Australia. Miller is 95kgs and 1.83m tall. If you believe the official listings on the SANZAR website, that makes him 1cm taller than Michael Hooper, the same height as both Colby Fainga’a and Scott Fuglistaller and a mere 1kg lighter than Liam Gill. Granted, a couple of extra kilos wouldn’t go amiss but that ability to punch above his weight has been illustrated at every level of the game he has passed through.
Someone who is fairly well placed to offer an opinion on this is Miller’s Norths team mate and former captain, Ben Matwijow. Having been told he was too small for his position in the second row for a professional career, Matwijow did the hard yards in club rugby before finally cutting a break in the ITM Cup with Canterbury last season. That led him to a six-month contract with the Queensland Reds this year, where he played alongside Liam Gill, and a recently signed a contract with the Western Force for 2017.
“Will is one of the most talented footballers I’ve played with, and I think he gets pigeon holed as too small,” says Matwijow. “I think you don’t really know if someone can handle Super Rugby until they’re thrust into the situation. Will is one person I have no doubt would handle it.
“He and ‘Gilly’ are very different style of players. ‘Gilly’ is a phenomenal player at the breakdown and in terms of his ability to do just about anything. But Will is just a workhorse and his ability to break tackles is second to none. He just has another level compared to everyone else and I think he’s consistent at doing that week in week out. I think over the last few years he has been the best club player I’ve played with or against, hands down.”
Miller himself prefers to play down any such comparisons. But ask him which of the current Australian opensides he thinks he may share the most similarities with and he stays with his home state.
“Probably Michael Hooper. I want to be as dynamic as him, but I’m probably a little bit different to all of them in good and bad ways I guess. I’m possibly a little bit harder on the ball than Hooper and I like to play with it a lot more in attack than David Pocock, while Sean McMahon is just about dominance on the field, he’s a different player altogether.
“I like getting my hands on the ball and setting up attacks as well but I enjoy that competition with my opposite number at the breakdown and trying to get that dominance there. We’ve got some of the best sevens in the world and we’ve got so many of them. Every starting seven for an Australian Super Rugby franchise is a Wallaby, so it’s a pretty high quality position in this country to have a crack at.”
Of course, a Shute Shield Premiership would be a pretty handy addition to the Miller CV but whatever happens this afternoon at Forshaw Park, this has been a landmark season for the Shoremen. Eleven wins in a row under head coach Simon Cron carried them to a third place finish on the ladder and on to a place in the final four, an even greater achievement when you look at the age of the squad. Despite his relative youth, his playing experience sees the fledgling captain assume a natural leadership role.
“I was fortunate to play first grade when I was pretty young so I’ve got a bit more experience than some of the other guys even though I’m still 23-years-old, and I’m enjoying it,” says Miller. “I’ve had to pull my head in a little bit, I used to get in a bit more trouble when I wasn’t captain and I’ve got to be nice to the ref now, otherwise the team gets in trouble instead of just me!
“I wanted to take on the captaincy but I was a little bit nervous about it,” he admits. “I’ve generally been a bit fiery on the field in the past but I’ve kind of had to set an example to the team and be more of a calming influence for the boys this year. The fire is still in the belly but it’s about picking your moments, you can’t go off about everything, and I think playing under guys like Nick Lah and Ben Matwijow has helped that. They were pretty good leaders when I was young and I’ve tried to learn from the way they went about things.
“The more this group mature the better they’ll be, even the difference from last year to this is obvious. I used to think it was all about firing boys up but actually, calming them down is the key. When we conceded a try last year, the guys got a bit frantic at times thinking we were going to lose. But with guys like Angus and Hugh Sinclair helping me out and steadying the ship, I’ve got full confidence that they will take care of the job. It’s still a very young side so over the next three years, anything’s possible.”
The immediate future should see another stint with the NSW Country Eagles in the NRC, as the country’s third tier competition hopefully continues to grow and provide another pathway for the best young players in Australia towards a professional career. But while the chance to represent his country roots is one he clearly relishes, and the opportunity to test himself in the professional arena remains a dream, it is his beloved Shoremen that hold his attention and focus for now.
“As soon as I found out there was a country team in the NRC I wanted to play for them and it was really enjoyable,” he says. “I was pretty lucky to get such a good run in that comp because there’s so many good backrowers in club rugby to choose from and I just tried to take in as much as I can.
“Of course it’d be great to make a career out of rugby but at the same time, you’ve got to be realistic, not everyone can do that. I was always told when I was younger that what you do for your club is most important and that any rep stuff is a bonus and just to enjoy it when you’re there. But the main thing is helping your club go well and doing everything you can for it.”
But if that contract did eventuate, the biggest question may be – who takes over the milking duties?
“My sister’s worked on the farm the last two years and she’s taken up a gig with Dairy Australia so I’m sure she could help out a bit more if needed,” laughs Miller. “I’m sure my old man would make me take it anyway.”
For a champion player and a champion fella, it would be a just reward. Just don’t tell the cows!
Original version published by Rugby News on: July 31st, 2016