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Professional rugby can be a rewarding existence . . . but it is also a restrictive one

IF only on the strength of his magnificent name, Gurth Hoyer Millar might have been expected to be one of the best remembered players to pull on a Scotland shirt.

Chris Cusiter is now giving some thought to his life after rugby. Picture: Rob Casey/SNS Group/SRU
Chris Cusiter is now giving some thought to his life after rugby. Picture: Rob Casey/SNS Group/SRU

Yet his passing went almost unnoticed when he died last month at the age of 84, the former hooker having slipped away quietly when the sport's attention was focused squarely on the hurly-burly of the RBS 6 Nations Championship.

In fairness, Hoyer Millar was not exactly a rugby superstar, for his Test career began and ended on the same day, February 23, 1953, when he made his single appearance for Scotland in that year's 26-8 loss to Ireland at Murrayfield. In the bestiary of rugby, he therefore qualifies as a one-cap wonder but to brand him as that would do a ludicrous disservice to the man and his wider achievements.

Fortunately, those came to light in an admirable obituary which painted a remarkable picture of Hoyer Millar as a man of far-reaching interests, abilities and successes. Far from defining him by his solitary Scotland selection, the character that emerged was an all-rounder in life as well as sport, his cv illuminated by what he did in the army, in politics and in business. The obituary pointed out that he was also a thoroughly likeable bloke.

Born in 1928 into a family with deep Perthshire roots, Hoyer Millar went to Harrow - there is some mystery over who paid the fees - became head of school, captain of cricket and won first-team honours in three sports in consecutive years, the so-called (and very rare) triple blood. From there he went on to Oxford, where his education was interrupted by a period of national service in which he became an SAS lieutenant and saw action in the Malayan Emergency.

Back at Oxford, he played cricket for the University against Kent and Warwickshire, won Blues for rugby and boxing, gained his single Scotland cap and went on to play for Richmond, as they twice won the Middlesex Sevens. He graduated in law, was called to the Bar in 1954, but decided on a business career instead.

In which pursuit, his achievements put anything he did in sport in the shade. Hoyer Millar rose to a senior management position with BP, became one of the first non-family members to join the board of Sainsbury's, was a long-serving director of the Hudson's Bay Company and P&O, and was appointed chairman of the auctioneers Bonhams. Oh, he also found time to be one of the founders and first chairman of Homebase.

Only in politics did he appear to lack the Midas touch. A strong believer in progressive social policies, he stood five times as a Liberal candidate for parliament - and lost five times as well. Having given up on that dream, he turned his attention to Oxfam, chaired the charity's finance committee and even ran the annual toy fair.

A full life then. But will any of the players of today be able to match it? For the avoidance of doubt (and accusations of hypocrisy) I was a strong supporter of rugby's move to professionalism 19 years ago but, while the change was right on so many levels, a professional rugby player is a professional rugby specialist and a less rounded individual as a result. It could hardly be otherwise.

One of the most fascinating, and perhaps even alarming, conversations I've had in rugby in recent times was with a player who admitted candidly that he felt lost when he had to make his way through an airport on his own. Most of his travel, he explained, was in a team context, with trifling matters like check-in procedures and checking departure boards delegated to club staff. His job was to play rugby. Nothing else.

In other words, he didn't have to do much thinking of his own. In the modern game, every aspect of a player's life is micro-managed, prodded, measured and directed by someone else. The team manager tells him where to go; the press officer tells him what to say; the dietician tells him what to eat; the physician tells him when to sleep. The rewards may be high, but life is reduced to a set of instructions.

Yet rugby is, essentially, about thinking on your feet. Isn't there a contradiction between preparation regimes that are all about sticking to scripts and performances that are all about improvisation?

Frankly, Edinburgh looked a heck of a lot better as they mixed up their tactics in the 1872 Cup against Glasgow than they have in their rigid gameplan throughout the rest of the season. Maybe you need a system that can be stepped out of now and then.

Chris Cusiter has never had much problem playing heads-up rugby. His lightning breaks round (and sometimes over) rucks declared him to be a special talent when he emerged at the top level just more than a decade ago. He may restrain those instincts a little now but it is still a pleasure to watch him play, his darting eyes scanning the horizon for opportunities.

Chris is far nearer the end of his career than the beginning, but he's still weighing up chances. Yet in the wake of reading of Hoyer Millar's remarkable life, it was almost poignant to hear the scrum-half's half-time interview on BBC Alba on Saturday as he spoke about his own future plans. "You can't play rugby forever and there is a big world to go and explore," he said.

"At times, we are very restricted by professional rugby. It puts great demands on the kind of lifestyle you can lead. Its going to be great to be able to go on a skiing holiday and go to friends' wedding. At the same time, there is an element of 'in at the deep end' and trying to catch up with my peers who are 10 years ahead of me in their careers."

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