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11 April 2023
hsbc new zealand sevens day 2
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We don’t tend to go for too much hyperbole here at Rugby News, especially when it comes to younger players who are showing out before they have even left their teens.

We normally don’t make crazy comparisons with great All Blacks or Black Ferns. That would be getting close to clickbait territory.

But then a player like Jorja Miller starts turning heads on the world stage even before her 19th birthday. We have a suspicion that pumping up her tyres isn’t going to derail her career any time soon.

She is now 19 and the fast-rising star of the Black Ferns Sevens, displaying a level of maturity, skill and composure that is extraordinary amongst a team that has built an unmatched legacy since 2016.

Watch her tackle. It is something to behold. Technically strong over the ball in a dynamic, dangerous position, she can win possession and then spring to her feet and sprint 50m. Then there is her deceptively fast running style. Miller looks like she is loping along, but she is actually shifting so fast that defenders are beaten before they know it. She has come up with big plays in Hamilton, Sydney and Vancouver this year as the Black Ferns Sevens have stormed to the top of the World Series log and qualified for the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

This is a teenager who is not being overshadowed by the likes of Michaela Blyde, Tyla Nathan-Wong and Stacey Fluhler.

Those who watched Christchurch GHS First XV when Miller was starring from 2019-21 and in the Condors Sevens in 2019 will have long been alerted to her talent. Rugby News columnist Kendra Cocksedge first saw her in Year 9 at Timaru GHS.

“Over the ball she is incredible. She was doing that when I first saw her. To me, she was always destined to wear the Black Ferns jersey, 15s or sevens,” says the Black Ferns great.

Her old First XV coach at Christchurch GHS, Jamie Livingstone, recalls Miller arriving in Year 11 with all the basic skills in place but also a hard-nosed mentality towards rugby.

“She’s remarkably strong for one so young and that strength is combined with her determination. She’s extremely competitive over the ball and doesn’t like losing those little battles,” says Livingstone.

“We’ve got players coming into Year 9 now who want to be the next Jorja Miller.” It’s a decent rap but, even in the turbulent social media maelstrom, Miller looks to be one with her feet on the ground and head screwed on right even as attention on her grows.

“It’s good to go to the girls around me for advice who have experienced that (social media ups and downs) a lot. It’s almost like it’s not true for me. I find it hard to articulate, so I don’t worry about it.”

There may have been some comment after she had the ball knocked from her grasp when over the tryline in the Vancouver final against Australia. Lesson learned. Miller didn’t beat herself up too much over it. She was wanting to go closer behind the posts to make the conversion easier, but did not see Maddie Levi lurking. “I should have put it down straight away on that one,” she says.

She seems like a positive person; her favourite phrase is, ‘Yeah, definitely.’ And she cannot help but be happy with her performances in 2023.

“It was a shock, really, to exceed on the world stage or at least leave my mark. But it’s been cool just to go out, have fun and play like how I want to play,” Miller says.

Knee surgery after the 2021 Farah Palmer Cup with Canterbury knocked her back and she found the long rehab challenging mentally. She was still only 17 and used to being active...

“At school I would play so many different sports and I was used to being so busy. To have to do nothing was tough, but having a good medical team around me made it a whole lot easier.”

Put it this way, she has not come back slower.

Moving to Tauranga from Christchurch might have proved a challenge but she loves the Bay lifestyle. The beach is handy, and she flats with All Blacks Sevens squad member Te Paea Cook-Savage. Miller says she finds it easy to switch off from rugby when with family and friends.

She has done a lot of highland dancing, which has proven a real advantage for her with her agility, balance and core.

The Black Ferns Sevens must be a helluva team to come into. Their ethos is centred around player empowerment, so if 19-year-old Jorja Miller wants to pipe up and say something she is encouraged to do so. The mix of youth and experience is compelling and clearly working. Jazmin Felix-Hotham and Risi Pouri-Lane are thriving, along with Miller.

As Miller says, “The emphasis on being true to one’s authentic self gives the players freedom to play without shackles on the field.”

Leading the way is Sarah Hirini, one of the nation’s mentally toughest players, male or female, and the best leader, male or female. You get the feeling that this side would run through brick walls for her and her big heart, huge work-rate and composure under pressure. Miller is just soaking up the Hirini values.

“She’s next level. It’s cool being around someone like that every day. The way she holds herself is really inspiring for everyone, as is her ability to stay composed and have us think that all pressure is perceived. That belief she drives in all we do means we just have to go out and play,” Miller says.

The medium-term goal is the Olympics in less than 18 months. “Everything we do is working towards the Olympics, but there are little things and tournaments that we want to tick off on the way. We’re working hard to get in the best place possible for that.”

Just back from Hong Kong, the Black Ferns Sevens have one last tournament in the World Series, in Toulouse on May 12- 14. Both destinations are firsts for Miller.

After that, any 15s play for her HSOB club or Farah Palmer Cup for Canterbury is dependent on clearance from her bosses and Cory Sweeney. But she hints that she would love to keep playing to “avoid boredom”.

The Black Ferns 15s are a long-term goal, but that won’t be happening until at least 2025 given the current schedule. However, it’s not too hard to imagine Miller in the Black Ferns No 7 jersey one day in the not-distant future.

In the meantime, she will continue to keep jackling, make breaks out of nothing, get away sweet offloads and turn heads on the sevens circuit.

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