By Jeff Nations - firstname.lastname@example.org
MIDDLETOWN -- Eric Miller offers a unique perspective on the state of American rugby, where it is now and where it's headed in the future.
Miller, a former professional and longtime Ireland national team player, is an enthusiastic proponent of seeing the game continue to grow in the United States. For the past few weeks, he's been doing his part by conducting skills clinics at colleges and high schools. On Wednesday, Miller was passing the message to Lord Fairfax Community College men's and women's players.
"The game is changing," Miller said. "You see like South Africa and Argentina -- big, bulldozing teams. I think the Americans are certainly stereotyped as big hitters. But if we can turn them into thinking rugby players, identifying space in a moment, maximizing their skills as big athletes -- ultimately, like a kick-return player in American football where they're evading rather than trying to barrel the first person they see."
That simple precept -- think -- lies at the heart of Miller's coaching philosophy and was the message he centered around has he worked with the Cannons. Lord Fairfax is a second-year men's rugby program, and the women's team is just getting started this year -- most of the 25 or so participants in the clinic play on the collegiate team at the school.
Aaron Painter, the head coach of both teams at LFCC, said getting Miller to conduct the clinic was "a great opportunity I couldn't pass up."
"There's different styles from every aspect of rugby," Painter said. "Every nation has a different style of play, so it's always good to try and incorporate different aspects of the game. Some stuff we may pick up, and some stuff just doesn't work for us and our skill level."
That skill level varies widely, between different collegiate programs and even among the Lord Fairfax players. Many had never played rugby before joining the program at LFCC.
Trevor Dawson, a Loudoun County resident, is the exception to that rule. He's played the sport six years.
"I picked it up after about a week," Dawson said. "Once you learn the basics, the rest comes. I'd say in two or three weeks, you can learn the game. But I'm still learning stuff."
On Wednesday, much of the information concerned improving defensive play.
"He's doing a really good job on defense -- post and pillar," Dawson said. "I feel like that's one of the biggest flaws a team has, especially a new team like ours. Not a lot of people are used to post, pillar, getting the defense close to the ruck because that is the main attack point of any offense."
Miller, who has conducted clinics ranging from the University of Virginia's team to high school programs, will wrap up this tour with a clinic at James Madison University today. Miller said much of his time has been spent teaching overall attack philosophy to American teams.
The Dublin resident hopes to make a permanent move to the United States in the near future. Miller offers expertise -- besides playing for Ireland's national team, Miller has extensive experience as a professional playing with the British Lions on their South African Tour, a long stint with Leinster including 50 Heineken European Cup games, and a three-year stint with the Leicester Tigers. He's also spent time coaching youth programs in Ireland since retiring from the game six years ago.
"The satisfaction I get as a coach is seeing people keen to learn new things, and that's why I've enjoyed the last few weeks as well," Miller said. "Ultimately, I think the American approach to all their sports -- they give 120 percent. And once you have that, that's a huge thing to build on.
"The thinking and the skill levels can be improved once that's there. That gives me a huge incentive to want to come over and coach here."
The Cannons were getting the message.
"This guy really knows what he's talking about," Front Royal's Ben Biggs said. "Obviously he's helping out people who've never even watched rugby, let alone played it. I think they're getting a good understanding right off the bat."
Winchester's Darla Doyle, a former softball player just getting into rugby, said the clinic helped the Cannons perform as a group on the field.
"All the girls are new, so we're learning the basics," Doyle said. "But also, I think it just teaches us to work as a unit. We move together, we work together and it brings us together as a stronger force."
Miller hopes to continue being a part of helping grow the sport of rugby in America. Always, he'll keep spreading that simple message to American players -- think.
"It's different than the games over here, like American football," Miller said. "Everyone has a set role and they do their bit, and the game stops. Rugby is continuous, and the roles are changing in every phase so you have to think on your feet."