Jorja Miller has quickly become one of the key players in the successful Black Ferns Sevens in her first season on the world series circuit, and it's a unique combination of sports that's helped her reach the top, Merryn Anderson discovers.
Jorja Miller’s life has always been a balancing act between her two sporting loves - both literally keeping her on her toes.
The 19-year-old Black Ferns Sevens star grew up in Timaru playing rugby, inspired by her dad, and highland dancing, following in the footsteps of her mum and nana.
“I’m glad I had both of them,” Miller says. “I didn’t like one over the other, so I was always making sure I prioritised both evenly, which I think now has benefited me quite a lot.”
Now that combination has taken her to great heights - as she makes a name for herself in just her first season of the world rugby sevens series.
Miller heads to Hong Kong today with the rest of the Black Ferns Sevens team as they look to clinch a fifth straight world series title at the Hong Kong Sevens next week.
Managing to balance both rugby and dance through her school years, Miller says there are many transferable skills she takes from the stage to the field.
“The main ones would have to be my agility, footwork, lateral movement and the ability to move quick with my feet.” You can definitely see all of those skills at play when the young prop eludes tacklers on the world sevens circuit.
Despite being at different ends of the sports spectrum, Miller - an age group national champion in both sports - enjoys having both in her repertoire.
“Playing a lot of team sports growing up, it’s cool because you work hard with a team, train hard and then you succeed together or grow together,” she explains.
“Whereas in dancing, it’s sort of all on you - which is also a cool drive to have cause you know you’ve got to do your job or else you’re not going to succeed and then it comes back to you."
As for another member of the Black Ferns Sevens who has the best highland dance skills? Miller reckons Portia Woodman-Wickliffe.
“I taught her a little routine and she was pretty good at it," she says. "A little bit of work needs to be done, but she’s pretty up there.” (Woodman-Wickliffe, by the way, was one of Miller's sporting heroes when she was at intermediate school).
Miller grew up in Timaru, and started playing rugby when she was just four with her older brother on all boys teams.
She dabbled in sevens, but mainly played 15s until moving to Christchurch Girls’ High School as a boarder in Year 11.
“That was when I actually started taking it seriously and I found a real passion in it,” says Miller, who led the Christchurch Girls' team to win the national sevens schools title in her first year.
“I could just play how I played and express myself. I think at the moment, sevens is definitely suited to the style of rugby I like to play.”
Miller was named in the Black Ferns Sevens side in 2022, but missed out on the chance to compete at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games with a knee injury.
After two surgeries, she finally made her debut in September, at the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Cape Town.
“Before running out onto the field for the first game, all the girls were just like ‘Just run out there and look up’,” Miller remembers.
“Cape Town Stadium is a massive stadium with heaps of people so I ran out and it was just such a surreal feeling.
“Then in the huddle with all the girls with the fern on our chest, it was so special because those are the moments you dream of as a kid.”
When she played in the Sydney Sevens back in January, Miller - still only 18 - was named player of the final in the Black Ferns' 35-0 victory over France.
Coming into a close-knit team, Miller was fully embraced by her teammates, even legends like Sarah Hirini who marked her 50th tournament on the same day Miller made her debut.
“As soon as I came in, everyone was so welcoming," Miller says. "They opened the doors for me and let me into the environment which was really awesome and just made it a lot easier." The team didn't just welcome her, but also her parents and family into the Black Ferns whānau.
Hirini is a big role model from Miller, who learns a lot from playing right beside her on the field.
“She’s the person who's going to say something to you, tell you what you need or where you can go or what she needs from you," Miller explains.
"It helps you to be able to grow; it’s all from a good place which is really special to be able to have that connection. And I think across the team it’s like that, we all want to have honest conversations so that we are the best team.”
From making her debut only six months ago, Miller has shown an impressive rise through the ranks, quickly becoming one of the stars of the team. It's something she didn’t expect to happen so fast.
“It’s been pretty crazy and still seems hard to believe almost,” she says.
“Coming in, I didn’t even expect to debut within two years, but I obviously hoped. I’m really passionate and driven, so I tried to drive towards making my debut as soon as possible and be on the world series, but I knew maybe the reality wasn’t so much like that.
“I’ve been able to grow tournament by tournament through confidence and belief and connections with all the girls on the field."
At the most recent tournament in Vancouver, the Black Ferns won their fourth tournament in a row, beating Australia, 19-12, in the final.
The victory meant the side qualifies for the 2024 Olympics in Paris, looking to back up their gold medal from Tokyo.
“A big goal for us this season was to qualify for the Olympics,” Miller says. “So being able to do so this early in the season, not having to wait for the end was really cool for us and a big thing to celebrate.”
Miller knows being in the Olympic team is no guarantee, but it would be a dream come true.
“It was always tick off the small things first and hopefully make it to there one day,” she says.
“Obviously a lot of athletes dream of going to the Olympics because it’s the pinnacle of all pinnacles, definitely been a big dream. Still gotta work to get there but I’m excited for the next year or so.”