Former Waikato man teaches budding stars

EVAN PEGDEN
Last updated 05:00 11/03/2014
Todd Miller
CHRIS HILLOCK/Fairfax NZ
NEW MAN: Former All Black Todd Miller is now grooming the Waikato rugby stars of tomorrow.

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Todd Miller burst on to the Waikato rugby scene in 1993 as an 18-year-old sensation and limped out 11 years later.

But the livewire little fullback who twice helped the Mooloos win the Ranfurly Shield off Auckland, went on tour with the All Blacks to Wales, Ireland and England and played 84 games in the red, yellow and black did so with few regrets.

He went straight into the teaching career he had trained for and nearly 10 years later Miller helps mould modern budding teenage sensations as head of PE at Hamilton Boys' High School.

"It's a great school and for 90 per cent of the boys this is their favourite class of the day," Miller, 39, said.

Married with three daughters and a son, the oldest of whom is at Hamilton Girls' High, he has not become the "cripple" some predicted for him after a troublesome knee that had lost most of the cartilage that cushions the bones in the joint forced him into retirement during the 2004 season.

"At the time both the doc and physio said 'Look, you're probably going to be in line for a knee replacement by the time you're 40' but I'm almost there and I can't see that being too much of a problem.

"The less I do the better it feels so that's the trade-off and I have to make sure I find that balance."

That means restricting his physical fitness regime to 20 minutes on the treadmill before school and his active work style as a PE teacher.

It's all a far cry from his arrival in Hamilton at the start of 1993 as a youngster fresh out of Whangarei's Kamo High School and headed for teachers college.

As it turned out it was over 12 years before Miller actually became a teacher as his rugby and a two-year mission with the Mormon church intervened.

He had trained as a primary school teacher but ended up at secondary school level after sampling a taste of each.

Miller said his experiences through rugby and outside of the study he did to become a teacher had been of enormous benefit in the job and he had tried to pass that on to the students.

As a schoolboy, raised on a farm and attending a co-ed school he was deeply into his sport.

"There's a lot more for our kids to be distracted by now. Back in those days you either played sport or you had to go and feed out or do something on the farm.

"For me to be able to go and play basketball on a Friday night, tennis on a Saturday and do touch during the summer was great."

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Rugby obviously was his strength and he played in the New Zealand Secondary Schools team for two years before finishing high school and heading to Hamilton in 1993.

His uncles were the famous Going brothers, who cut numerous onfield capers for the then North Auckland team, and Miller agrees he was probably lucky not to carry the pressure of expectation that many of his cousins bearing the Going surname did as they remained in Northland to play their rugby.

"People in Waikato didn't care I was related to the Goings. They were the enemy.

"It was good to instead come here, be a fresh face and not have any expectations on me from what can be a pretty tough crowd in Northland."

It certainly didn't take long for Miller to make an impact on the Waikato rugby scene, excelling for Hamilton Marist in the local club competition.

And when he was whisked into the Waikato squad late in the season he just took it in his stride, even though it was unexpected.

"I remember watching Waikato win the NPC final in 1992 and I was still hoping to get to Hamilton to go to university then, but I had no rugby expectation.

"I think Straws [Andrew Strawbridge] was the fullback and they had Wayne Warlow and Dougy Wilson on the wings and I thought 'Gosh those guys are good'."

Injury delayed Miller's introduction to the Waikato colours and he missed the match against the British and Irish Lions and the initial NPC squad, but then injuries to others meant he finally got called up and made his debut against Taranaki at Rugby Park.

"It was a pretty late call-up. I think they'd played Hawke's Bay on the Wednesday and they had a training on the Thursday and I got a phone message written on a Post-It note left at home as I arrived home from a day at school.

"It said 'Kevin Greene rang and he wants you to go to training'. I didn't have a car and I had to ring a friend at university and ask if he could give me a ride down to the YMCA where they were doing an indoor recovery session.

"I arrived a good half hour late as I'd only got home at 6 o'clock and the training started at 6. Friday they had a captain's run that was like a walk-through and Saturday was my first game for Waikato."

That debut could not have gone better. He scored a try and his cousin, Vaughan Going, two in a 59-5 romp and Miller was selected to start again the following weekend in the Ranfurly Shield challenge against Auckland at Eden Park.

"I pulled a hamstring and ended up coming off but the following week was the successful shield challenge in Auckland so it was quite an introduction.

"I'd read all about Ranfurly Shield and about my uncles' achievements so I knew it was special but, like any kid growing up then, Auckland had the shield all through my teenage years so I'd never seen it, I'd never even been to Eden Park to watch North Auckland challenge for it.

"So I was probably fortunate that I wasn't caught up in it as others may have been so it was just another game, while others in that team had had four, five, six cracks at it and it was huge for them.

"To me it was my second game and I just thought 'This is what we do'."

It was not until his next challenge with Waikato in 1997 that Miller really understood what they had achieved four years earlier.

"Those games would be the highlights of my own playing career as well as then defending the shield in '98. They were great times and a good group to be involved in."

Miller's 1994 season was wrecked by constant hamstring injuries.

"For periods of time I was running on about 70 per cent and that was pretty evident in how I was able to perform. It certainly is not a fond memory of good rugby but was still a really good group to be part of and be around.

"I was a passenger really but I was only 19 and still a baby, while a number of my team-mates were coming to the end of their careers."

A devout Mormon, who never trained or played on Sundays even with the advent of professional rugby, Miller stepped away from the sport in 1995 and 1996 to complete his church mission in the South Island.

"It wasn't too bad. I didn't miss [rugby]. I had a purpose and was keen to do what I needed to do.

"I got pretty badly out of shape and so probably wouldn't have been much chop anyway, but I got home at the beginning of '97 and went straight back to school to finish my third year of four.

"Rugby had gone professional while I was away so there was the opportunity to juggle what I knew was important, which was to complete that study, but also do what I needed to do to make a profession of rugby."

Miller said he had been uncertain how his no-play-on-Sundays stance would be received but said the Waikato and New Zealand rugby unions had been "fantastic" as had his team-mates.

His comeback year turned out to be a big one for him, playing some fine rugby for Waikato, winning the Ranfurly Shield again, getting married and being selected on the All Blacks' end-of-year tour, which included scoring a hat-trick of tries against Emerging England.

But there are no regrets he didn't play for the national side again or play a test match, stuck behind the great Christian Cullen in the pecking order and as a specialist fullback never considered for reserve benches.

"The fact is I wasn't good enough. In '97 I played really well, but it took me a while to figure out that professional environment and I probably played my best rugby after '97 in about 2002."

Ironically, now he sees students at his school being groomed far better for professional rugby.

When the end to his career was finally forced on Miller it was a no-brainer.

"When I had the operation they just said 'There is nothing we can do, you're just going to have to grit your teeth'.

"But when you're expected to be fast and elusive and you're not, that was it, goodbye, time to go," Miller said.

- Waikato Times

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