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If there was a year for a player to step away from rugby, then Capt Erica Mills (RA) got her timing absolutely spot on. Because after a season of firsts, from the first Women’s Army Navy match to be played at Twickenham through to representing UK Armed Forces at the inaugural International Defence Force Women’s World Cup in New Zealand, the experienced forward has chosen now to pull the curtain down on her long career in the sport.

Her timing is even more apt, because Christmas 2022 will also be Capt Mills’ last in uniform, too, as she leaves the Army in January to embark on the next chapter of her professional and personal life.

“I couldn’t have personally written the script any better,” she says. “It started with winning the Inter-Services this year, followed by being selected for the World Military Sevens out in France, and then being involved with organizing the UKAF 15s team in New Zealand.

“If you were to have told me 10 years ago that I would be doing that and that’s how I would be ending my career I would probably put a lot on betting against the way I would finish playing Forces rugby!

Far left, Erica with her Army team mates being presented the Army v Navy match trophy and Inter Sevice trophy at Twickenham.

Image © Army v Navy Match

Third left, Erica lined up with her UKAF team mates ahead of the IDRC Plate Final in Auckland

Image © UKAF Rugby

“But that is just the way it turned out and I am extremely grateful even now looking back on New Zealand in particular, not just the rugby but the experiences, the memories, the location, the fact that the Women’s World Cup was on out there as well, there is no better ending.
“For me it was a hugely positive and I had several moments where I was like ‘is this actually happening, am I actually in New Zealand with all this going on?’. Obviously, the outcome for us a squad was definitely not where we wanted to be, but I think just in terms of where we came out on our final performance was probably where we needed and wanted to be right from the start.
“We bounced back, we regrouped and came home with some silverware, so I don’t think we can be too hard on ourselves for that.”
April’s win over the Royal Navy was also Capt Mills’s 25th cap in the red shirt, another reflection of years of commitment to Army Rugby when only a handful of caps are won each season, and where two years were missed due to the pandemic.
That experience of running out at the home of England Rugby in front of tens of thousands of supporters certainly left a lasting impression.

“The most vivid recollection I have of feeling that was actually when we walked out to warm up because the Men’s game was still being played, the stadium was still relatively full and it was extremely close at that point. The atmosphere was out of this world, nothing like I will ever experience again, even though it wasn’t for us and for our game, it was Army Navy, it was part of what we had been on the sidelines watching.

“To be part of that was, I will never forget it. Heidi [Silcox] and I were warming up together about 3 metres apart and could not hear what we were saying! Even before the game there was that moment of ‘this is Twickenham’, and for someone who has been playing the sport for 15 years, to finally be there that was the first moment of recognizing where I was and what we were about to do.

“The game was the game. I will remember bits of it, but nothing really that would top that apart from finishing the game and being given my 25th cap.”

The inaugural Army v Navy women’s match at Twickenham was a very special occasion.

Image © Army v Navy Match

It was all a far cry from her first outing in a red shirt in a chilly January back in 2013 against Scotland, on an artificial pitch which had the rugby pitch marked out with cones. It was an 80 minutes which gave Capt Mills more than just memories, too.

“It was my first week of phase two training at Sandhurst,” she recalls. “I got released to play, up in Scotland, after an epic coach journey. The game was in the snow, and it was one of the craziest experiences of my life. I remember it vividly.

“It’s also where I got my first, well only, nickname. I’d been at university with Gemma Rowland and I asked her how kind of rigid they were going to be with kit and boots and stuff like that. Cut a long story short, she said I needed to polish my boots to turn up, so I turned up for my first game with Army rugby with highly polished boots and got the nickname Kiwi, which I have never shrugged off since.

“I have been extremely fortunate and have had what I consider to be a really privileged and  long playing career. I have never missed a full season, although I did miss an Inter-Services because I was overseas but other than that I have consistently played Army rugby for my entire military career.

“It is almost a bit fitting that both are ending at the same time. Looking back I am extremely grateful and I think that is what has kept me in for as long as I have been in. For a good eight months of every year having four days out of the office playing rugby and doing what I love so, yes, it’s been a ride, it’s been amazing, and I’m hugely privileged to have been in one piece for most of it.”

Capt Mills grew up in a rugby family – “my mum once won Bath season tickets in a radio competition where she had to get dressed up in a seagull outfit and flap around a square!” – but did not start playing until her second year at Exeter University. Now one of the biggest rugby universities in the country with well-established links to Exeter Chiefs, Exeter’s rugby back then was more social, but it put Capt Mills not just on a new sporting path but also led indirectly to her putting pen to paper with the Army.

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I left university, but was playing at the Newquay Sevens for Newton Abbott and came across a recruitment stand,” she explains. “That is where I joined the Army, and while I had 12 months away from the sport leading up to Sandhurst, I’ve always had rugby as one of the most important things in my life.

“Whenever I’ve changed jobs I’ve made it clear up front to my new boss or bosses that I really wanted to commit to Army Rugby, and if selected would be looking to play the season and represent them and my cap badge.

“I was very fortunate with my first couple of Commanding Officers and Sub-Unit Commanders, because they were really supportive. I have always managed to get a really good balance on doing some really good jobs and playing sport and have been very privileged to have had those opportunities.”

Top flight civilian rugby has also played its part, too, with Capt Mills one of an increasing number of Army players to be training and playing with Premier 15s clubs.

For Capt Mills this experience included spells at Wasps and Saracens, before joining Gloucester-Hartpury in 2019. A regular in the match day squads before the pandemic brought an early end to the 2019/20 season, she played 14 times in all for the Cherry and Whites, having approached then-head coach Susie Appleby after receiving a posting to Westbury.

“I knew Susie from first meeting her at the Rio Olympics, so just gave her a call and asked if there was any space for me. She knew who I was as a player and had shown a lot of interest in the Army over the previous years, and we went from there.

“It was probably one of the best things I could have done in terms of developing my rugby. I had experience in a lot of areas but was definitely not in a space where I thought I knew everything. I felt almost new and young when it came to that level of commitment and professionalism, in which there had been a definite shift in the year I had been away. So it was just a great feeling to feel invested in and feel as professional as you can kind of get whilst the game is still growing.”

Erica, centre, received her 25th Cap at this years Army v Navy match.

Image © Army v Navy Match

The IDRC Plate Final marked Erica’s last match before retirement from rugby and also the Services.

Image © UKAF Rugby

Nevertheless, despite having left her highly polished boots as part of the UKAF’s donation to the Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea team at the end of the IDF World Cup, it will always be the red shirt to which Capt Mills returns to for her career highlights.

“The Army set the standard in terms of kind of feeling invested in,” she says, “just with the small things a few seasons ago when we were playing Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, England Under 20s and they were like our pre-season if you like before we played the RAF and the Navy.

“Nobody I think that gets to this stage having played 10, 20 years or whatever, and has had the experience of pulling on an Army shirt, will say that any other shirt is better, it is just a completely unique feel.”

Words © New Dogs, Old Tricks

Header Image © Army v RAF Match

Featured Image © UKAF Rugby