Rugby League Heroes: Gavin Miller

Gavin Miller, the 1986 Man of Steel, was one of the great imports to British Rugby League in the 1980s. He started out as a 17-year-old with Western Suburbs before having two spells at both Eastern Suburbs and Cronulla Sharks.

He won the World Cup with Australia in the 1988 World Cup Final and captained New South Wales in 1989. He was selected at loose forward in Hull KR’s greatest XIII last year.

If you could relive one day from your career, which would it be? 

Wembley 1986, and this time John Dorahy would kick the goal for us to win by one point! We worked so hard to get there, and we were primarily the most successful team of the year, but we just didn’t play well enough on the day, and Castleford got us by a point. It was disappointing because I knew what it meant to the supporters.

You injured your hamstring the day before the match. Should you have played?

Probably not, given my time again. I had a discussion with Roger [Millward], and we decided to do it. I was up all night, icing it, working on the leg. But if I had my time again, I wouldn’t play. I got a lot of criticism for my performance. I honestly thought I could fill a hole defensively, but I suppose my main attribute was being the main ballplaying forward. I was the one to put us in a winning position, and I couldn’t do that.

You were one of the great attacking loose forwards in the 1980s. Does it sadden you that the number 13 is now basically an extra prop?

Yes, it does. Rugby League has become more of a yardage game. Even in Australia, there are not many ballplaying forwards, which is quite sad. 

You played first grade for Western Suburbs at just 17. You debuted against Newtown Jets, for whom the American gridiron player Manfred Moore was playing his first game of Rugby League. What do you remember of that momentous day? 

I often reflect on that day. It was my first competition game, and I’d just turned 17. The captain-coach of Goulburn, Jim Cody, had played 150 games for Western Suburbs, and he was instrumental in my move. Arthur Beetson wanted me for the Roosters, but I went to the Magpies. John Dorahy was our fullback that day.

We played Newtown at Henson Park, and there was so much publicity about Manfred Moore. He scored and we lost, but we had a formidable team. Manfred had electric speed, and it’s a shame he didn’t last longer in Rugby League. When he scored, he threw a gridiron pass into the grandstand. Everyone there remembers that.

Paul Hayward also played in that match. Eighteen months later, he was arrested in Thailand for possession of eight and a half kilos of heroin and incarcerated in one of the world’s most notorious prisons. How aware were you of his story as the years went on?

Well, I certainly didn’t think anything when I played against him! I remember the story of his arrest, and it was a big deal. I am aware of the whole story now and it’s very sad.

Hope did you cope with first-grade football as a teenager?

It’s rare now for someone so young to play because there are restrictions. I felt I matured quite quickly, although others may disagree. I had experienced people around me, which stood me in good stead. When I first moved from Goulburn to Western Suburbs, I moved in with Ken Hey and his father Vic, who is one of the all-time greats. Vic also played in England. He helped a lot. He was a great influence on me. He would watch Ken and I sprint training and I can still hear him shouting, “Heel and toe, heel and toe!” He just gave mature advice about life and football. He was a wonderful bloke. 

There is a theory that great players rarely make great coaches. You were coached by Keith Holman, Arthur Beetson twice, Bob Fulton, Tommy Bishop, Roger Millward as well as by noted coaching gurus Jack Gibson, Warren Ryan and Don Furner. What do you think? 

It’s an interesting question. I can say this without any fear – the two most outstanding coaches I had were Roger Millward and Allan Fitzgibbon. Roger was a champion player who was also a great coach in my opinion. So there’s one example of it working. Roger and Allan were the only ones who gave me the opportunity to play my own game with no restrictions. Arthur didn’t reach the same heights as a coach that he had hit as a player, although he had played for Hull KR, and that’s how I ended up there. I was having some drama with the officials at the Roosters. He was the coach and got back-doored by Bob Fulton, but he spoke to Colin Hutton and arranged the move. 

In your first spell in Australia, you played with some all-time greats like Bob Fulton, Kevin Hastings, Ron Coote, Bob O’Reilly, Steve Rogers, Kurt Sorensen, Andrew Ettingshausen and John Ferguson. Can you pick one that stood out?  

My favourite player and the best player I ever played with or against was Steve Rogers. He was very supportive to me on and off the field when I was so young. I became a close friend of his. It was heartbreaking when he passed away at such a young age. I was one of the first people his partner rang. I went down and it had a significant impact on me.

You played twice for New South Wales in 1983 and three times as captain in 1989. How much had it changed in those six years?

Well, for me, Queensland had got even better, sadly. They dominated the early years, but in 1989, they had an incredible team with Wally, Mal, Alfie, Gary Belcher and many others. It was practically the Australia team, and they whitewashed us. I was told that the six-year gap is a record for a player to have between Origin appearances.

What was your first impression of Hull Kingston Rovers?

I fell in love with Hull Kingston Rovers and the city itself in the first couple of weeks. The players all embraced me as soon as I got there. Roger had one hell of a team and he allowed us to play without restrictions. He had a great assistant in Ged Dunn. In my first 12 months, I lived with Colin and Marjorie Hutton at their pub. They were so kind to me. I got to know all the patrons of their pub as well and that really helped me to get to know the city.

Who were the best players at Rovers?

George Fairbairn, wow. What a fullback! Chris Anderson went to Hull KR and couldn’t make the team because of David Laws and Garry Clark on the wings. They were too good for him. Then there was the great Gary Prohm. Mike Smith, one of my best friends, was a champion player. Gordon Smith was the Kiwi halfback. Dave Watkinson was so tough. Mark Broadhurst and Zook Ema were tremendous. Chris Burton toured with Great Britain. The talent was never ending. There was barely a player who wasn’t an international.

You won plenty of silverware in your time there. Which games stand out for you?

My debut. I’d only just arrived off the plane and went to Oldham and ended up playing. I don’t recall a lot of old games; I just had a great passion for playing.

You were the 1986 Man of Steel to go with the two Dally Ms and the Rothmans Medal you later won in Australia.

I feel honoured to have won those awards, but it was also great recognition to the players and the club. I still have the champagne goblet I was given!

What did you think of English fixture scheduling? For instance, Rovers played 16 games in 38 days, including Wembley, and in April the team played on the 9th, 11th, 13th, 15th, 16th, 18th, 20th and 22nd. How on earth did you cope? 

My very frank answer is I have no doubt that was the reason we didn’t comfortably beat Castleford in the Challenge Cup Final. The fatigue factor we went through cost us. When you become successful, with all those cup competitions you had, your club games would bank up. The fatigue in my legs was the reason I ended up with a torn hamstring.

Did you feel you had a chance of making the 1986 Kangaroos Tour despite being an English-based player?

No, not really. It was suggested, but I didn’t have my hopes up. Having said that, it is one of the big disappointments of my career that I only played a couple of times for Australia, but it is what it is. I was more disappointed than upset. Even down the track, when I was playing my best football in 1988 and 1989, I was overlooked on many occasions, and it was very disappointing. Bob Fulton took over after we won the World Cup in 1988 and didn’t like me, so my rep career was finished.

You had nearly two years away from the Winfield Cup when you went back to Cronulla. Had standards noticeably increased? Did you have any personal doubts whether you could re-adjust?

To be honest, it wasn’t really a higher standard than what I was used to in England, and I certainly didn’t have doubts about my ability to go back. 

You first played in the play-off in 1988 but lost out to an Ellery Hanley-inspired Balmain.

It was so frustrating not to do ourselves justice in the semi-finals. We probably weren’t conditioned for the finals because we hadn’t been there before. But our roster was good enough. We weren’t mature enough to stick to our game and do what we’d done all year. We lost to Canterbury in 1988, and then we had to beat Balmain to stay alive. Benny Elias kicked an early field goal. Then Ellery got on the outside of us, and that was it. I can’t speak highly enough of his finishing ability. The number of tries he scored was ridiculous. 

You scored in the 1988 World Cup Final when Australia beat New Zealand. 

Some games really stick in your mind. Wayne Pearce was my roomie and that was a great experience. I’ll always remember these long shelves and Wayne had covered them with his vitamin bottles. He was super fit. He still hasn’t had a drink in his life. Wally Lewis broke his arm early in the final, and we had to make some significant changes. New Zealand had home advantage and a huge crowd. With Wally getting the early injury, they had a great chance, but we played superbly. I may not have had the international career I would have liked but scoring in and winning a World Cup Final – I’ll take that!

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