Signing off from a playing career on the highest of highs and on your own terms is the rarest of sporting milestones. But this is exactly what Capt Jamie Miller (AAC) could be doing at the end of Army Navy week, as the Army Senior Men’s skipper not just signs off from his time in the red shirt, but also from his playing career as a whole.
The 35-year-old back rower leaves regular service in November, and with XX caps already under his belt and one more to come against the Navy at Twickenham on Saturday, he says that the time is right to be putting the boots to one side, for the time being at least.
“The timings have aligned that my eldest son desperately wants to start playing rugby at the same time as I’m finishing playing, so it means that I can put all that weekend time into his rugby,” the back rower says. “He’s very excited about the game and it’s good timing for me from a family perspective.”
Should he be selected to start on Saturday this will be the second time that Capt Miller will have led the Army out at the home of England rugby, and the third time overall he has experienced the unique Twickenham atmosphere of one of the biggest non-international occasions on the calendar.
He says that he has never taken it for granted, and that it will always be the highlight of his playing career.
“It was incredible,” he says. “For sportspeople who do what we do, to be fortunate enough to lead that team is very special. To do it for my last game of rugby, at the headquarters of the national game in this country, for me it doesn’t get any better than that, and makes it such a perfect moment for me to hang up my boots.”
Image © Army v Navy Match – Andrew Fosker
At such times it can be easy to reminisce just about the memorable matches and characters who populate rugby squads year after year. But Army rugby is bigger than that, with the opportunity to have sport have a positive influence on a professional career.
“There are a couple of things for me which Army rugby has been amazing for,” he says. “First and foremost, and the most obvious, is enjoyment. I personally believe that this is a key tenet for what the Army is all about, sports and adventure training. It helps me to enjoy my life and work, and you’re in such a better place to go back to the office and serve my soldiers, because I was in a positive state of mind.
“The other thing is exposure. As an officer it’s important for me to be able to speak to people from across the Army informally about what they do and how that impacts the wider organisation. That’s been eye-opening for me because I get to speak to all these people who I otherwise would have zero exposure to, from all different trades and parts of the Army, who have an interesting input and impact on what we do. I’ve learned a lot from the guys and had an amazing time doing it.”
The impacts do not stop there, either.
“I’ve been playing for a long time and have always been a big believer in the crossover of the traits between being a good rugby player and being a good leader or soldier,” Capt Miller continues. “A lot of them are really obvious – communication, physical leadership, morality, honour, valour, there are so many direct pull-acrosses from playing rugby to being a good soldier.
“The other thing for me as a leader in my work is having more opportunity for me to go away and practice that physical leadership. When I was on regimental duty, being around other ranks in an environment which is rank-less is hugely effective in understanding soldiers, how they work, how they operate, how they talk to each other, how they feel about what they do. It’s all really useful for being a more effective leader and officer in general.”
Image © Alligin Photography, Cat Goryn
2021/22 has marked the return of rugby into Army sport after the Covid-enforced hiatus. At a red shirt level this has meant instilling a new team ethic, and successfully incorporating new players into the squad.
The result of the hard work put in behind the scenes was seen in the way the nine new caps were integrated into the match day 23 which overcame the RAF in Gloucester in March, with other strong results coming against the British Police, Cambridge University and Coventry, who the Army had been beaten by at a similar time of year just before the pandemic lockdowns.
Capt Miller says that this has come about thanks to positive contributions across the squad.
“We’ve had lots of challenges, but there’s a very good senior leadership group,” he says. “We’ve got a lot of ‘old guard’ with lots of experience, although we’ve been unfortunate with injury and a number of our senior players have not been with us perhaps as much as we’d have liked, the likes of Nathan Titchard-Jones. And then our super experienced players are always away for longer because of club duty, the likes of Rocco, Lewis Bean, Siva.
“When those people are all together the influence is unbelievable and my job becomes very easy. We were lucky enough to have Rocco in camp in Cardiff and he just exudes influence and confidence, and he’s such a good mentor to a lot of the guys who are like sponges, soaking it up.
Image © Army v RAF Match – Alligin Photography
“It doesn’t feel like we’ve put a lot of people through the red shirt this year. It feels like the squad has been consistent, which has also made my job easier. You get used to the same faces playing and training with.
“And then we’ve had players who have had to step up without that experience in the red shirt, and in a lot of cases have been uncapped. Both of the fly halves are a good example of that, JJ [Jack Johnson] and Matt Smart, who were uncapped – Matt still is – yet they continually lead because they are required to lead.
“JJ is a young man and a Private soldier, and he’s been thrust into a position where he has to lead a team in its attacking shape. They’ve both done a great job.”
Image © Army v RAF Match – Alligin Photography
Image © Alligin Photography, Cat Goryn
The win over the RAF came five weeks ago, and while the Navy had their own Inter-Services Championship outing against the light blues the Army filled the gap with an outing against an experience Northampton Saints outfit in the 2022 Mobbs Memorial Match, an evening which Capt Miller says was important in maintaining squad cohesion.
“While we’d love to be in camp together the whole time, such is the nature of the job it’s not always an opportunity,” he says. “It can be difficult at the business end of the season because people could be focusing on being fit for selection for the Army Navy game, but at the same time it’s a great fixture at a great stadium, and they put out a quality team.
“This makes the fixture what it is, and the scoreline is almost irrelevant for the Mobbs Memorial Match when it’s at Northampton, because for a lot of our players the opportunity to play against Premiership quality opposition is huge. It’s a test and a point of pride, and from a wider point it’s great to have as much time in camp together as we can.”
And so to this week and the countdown to Twickenham. With more than 75 percent of tickets already sold, a massive crowd is guaranteed, the largest that several of the Army’s players will have experienced. This in turn asks different questions for Capt Miller to answer in his role as the team’s leader, and he says that there is a fine balance to be struck.
“It is a special week and while it’s true that this is just another game, at the same time it’s not just another game, it’s a huge event and initially at the start of the week we’ll want to let that sink in,” he adds. “This will be for some people the absolute highlight of their career. You’ve got to enjoy it and enjoy the build-up.
“Then when we’re sitting in the changing room waiting to go out you have to switch in focus. That’s where we come to lean on the leadership group and the experienced players, and I’ll be asking the players who have been there and done that to step up and lead.
“You have to enjoy the week and we’ll have a team run and photos at Twickenham on the Friday, and if you don’t soak that up then you’ll be missing a trick.
“In all reality, when you’ve had that first kick off and heard the roar of the crowd, from my experience from my first Army Navy you just get on with it. You’re just focused on what you’re doing, and once you’re in the game you’d struggle to do anything else.”
With the RAF game having been at Kingsholm, one of the country’s leading stadiums, and the Navy versus RAF games also attracting good crowds, Capt Miller says this can only be good for Inter-Services rugby as a whole.
“It’s definitely the right direction,” he says. “It’s not just about the Babcock Trophy. When you’re playing a game in a meadow with four-inch grass with a standing crowd of less than 200, that plays into it being a one-game season with everything else being a warm-up. We’ve been caught out by that in the past.
“It’s absolutely the right direction and it’s right for the RAF that they get to play in a quality stadium in front of a quality crowd, and long may it continue. If those crowds continue to built it’s only a good thing for Inter-Services rugby going forward.”
Images © Army v RAF Match – Alligin Photography
Capt Miller’s representative experience also includes selection for the UKAF squad which headed to the 2019 Armed Forces World Cup, and this experience only increased his respect for Navy rugby, too.
“In 2019 we went to the Armed Forces World Cup with UKAF in Japan, and a lot of the Navy players made up that squad,” he says. “It was interesting for me to get to know them as people rather than just as opposition. It’s going to be interesting now that I know them all to be very good blokes and consider them friends. That’s going to make for a different dynamic.
“I’ve got a huge respect for the Navy and if you don’t you do that at your peril. They’ve always had a good set-up and are well drilled. It’s always a good fixture, whatever the result. I know there have been some runaways but I’ve not been involved in any. We look at their results, they’ll be looking at ours, but it’s irrelevant how the teams are getting on against anyone else because the game is a game unto itself.
“The emotion, the significance of the event takes players to a different level, and it’s going to be about who reacts best, which players can rise to the occasion, which can compose themselves the best, who’s going to be the best under pressure. There are so many variables which will have an impact, not just the quality of the players.
“Who does that will be the most successful team.”
The Army Masters host the Royal Navy Ancient Mariners at Aldershot on Friday, April 29th. KO is 1400hrs and all are welcome.
Tickets for the 2022 Army Navy match (April 30th, Twickenham) are also still available.
CLICK HERE for information about Army Navy
Words © New Dogs, Old Tricks.
Header Image © Alligin Photography, Cat Goryn
Featured Image © Army v RAF Match, Alligin Photography