Rugby League Heroes: Jim Mills

JIM MILLS was one of the most notorious Rugby League players in history, with a disciplinary record to rival anybody’s. He was involved in one of the sport’s most brutal exchanges when he stamped on the head of Kiwi John Greengrass in a World Cup match in 1975. But he was also a wonderfully talented forward, winning selection on five tours to the Southern Hemisphere. After a thoroughly memorable playing career, Mills became the Chairman of Widnes, steering the club through the chaos of the mid-1990s when Super League, summer rugby and proposed mergers were sprung on the game.

RR: You’re known mainly for your disciplinary record. Is that fair?

JM: I know it was a bad record, but I was a pretty good player too. I was the only forward to be picked on every tour in the 1970s – the Lions tours of 1970, 1974 and 1979 and the 1975 and 1977 World Cups. I withdrew from the 1970 and 1977 squads, but I was still selected.

RR: How would Jim Mills fare in the modern game?

JM: I think I’d play a bit like I did back then. I ran out wide because I had pace for a big man and the pacier forwards do that today. I was one of the first to do that. I sometimes looked more like a centre.

RR: Why did you switch codes?

JM: I played Cardiff youth with Colin Dixon who went north at 17. I went at 19. I joined Halifax after some scouts came down. I didn’t have a job at the time, so that was the main reason. I still had a lot to weigh up and I often regretted it in later life because I could have played for Wales in union and then gone north.

RR: What did you think of the recent BBC ‘Codebreakers’ programme?

JM: I thought it was very well done. What they said was very true. The coloured lads had no chance of playing for Cardiff or Wales. Billy [Boston] played for Neath but that was as far as you could get. You were looked down on if you went north, whatever colour you were. I was once asked to leave the Cardiff clubhouse because I was a professional, but Rhys Williams, the big second rower for Wales, told me to stay put.

RR: How did you find the transition to Rugby League?

JM: I went to Halifax, but the coach Albert Fearnley wanted a back, not a forward! They’d won the Championship Final against Saints, so they had a good team, but I eventually got in the first team after a year or so.

RR: Talk us through your early days in the sport.

JM: I enjoyed Halifax and then one night I scored two tries against Salford and they signed me. But my life was a bit upside down at the time and I was considering going back to Wales. I went to Bradford instead and ended up getting picked for the 1970 tour, but I made a big mistake in withdrawing so I could play for North Sydney instead. They were near the bottom of the league and I didn’t have a good time there. It was Roy Francis who asked me to go to Australia. He said more tours would come along, and he was right, but 1970 was special as it was the last time we won the Ashes and I regret not going.

RR: What was it like playing for Roy, one of the code’s great coaches?

JM: Roy was a great coach, but he got a lot of stick in Australia – some nasty stuff, some of it racist. One journalist wrote something like “the last time we saw Roy, he was bringing his black and white minstrels over the harbour bridge.” It caused a fuss and rightly so. It got on top of him and he came home. Ken Irvine was there, and he was a great winger.

RR: Why did you sign for Widnes?

JM: I had Wigan, Bradford and Widnes to choose from after Norths. Vince Karalius, the coach of Widnes, told me they were building a great side. He said they needed a big forward. It was a gamble, but it was the best thing I ever did. There was Eric Hughes, Mal Aspey and Reg Bowden all coming through. We were the Cup kings of the 1970s. We beat Warrington at Wembley and I scored our only try.

RR: What was it like playing for Vince?

JM: He was a great coach, and, like Roy Francis, he was before his time. We were doing weights when no one else was. They used to laugh at us, but every team has a weights room now. He told us what to eat and that was the early 1970s. He studied fitness, food and weights because he was fitness fanatic himself. He built Widnes into a very fit team and we won so many games in the second half.

RR: What took you to Workington?

JM: I’d injured John Greengrass and went to Workington to cool off! Tom Mitchell took me up there. We lost to Widnes in the Lancashire Cup Final and, when I went back to Widnes, we then beat Workington in the final! I had a great time there and played with Boxer Walker, the Gorley brothers, Eddie Bowman, Ralph Calvin and Billy Pattinson. It was the biggest pack in the Rugby League.

RR: You came close to winning the Ashes in 1974.

JM: We could easily have won the first Test. There was nothing in. Steve Nash dropped the ball over the line. We won the second at the Sydney Cricket Ground and I missed the third with injury. They were the days of Australian referees who gave you nothing. We were just as good as Australia.

RR: Your Welsh team effectively stopped England winning the 1975 World Cup by beating them at Lang Park.

JM: It was a shame we stopped them winning the World Cup, but my main memory was Alex Murphy on television the night before, saying Wales had no chance. He said not one Wales player would get in the England side. It was the worst thing he could have said! We were physically strong, and we won the battle. It was a great World Cup and in John Mantle, David Watkins, John Bevan and Clive Sullivan, we had a very good side. I wasn’t surprised we beat England.

RR: Talk us through the John Greengrass episode

JM: It was a moment of madness. When I look at it, I can’t believe I did it. There was no need for it. I just lost my temper for some reason and stamped on him. I always regretted it, but thankfully we are now the best of friends. Me and his wife are friends on Facebook. John and I talk on the phone. He accepted my apology and I admire him for that. But when I was picked to tour in 1977 and 1979, the New Zealanders wouldn’t let me play in their country! But injuries meant I was unavailable anyway.

RR: Did you feel a bit insulted when the Great Britain front row in 1978 was referred to as ‘Dad’s Army’?

JM: No, not at all! We were an old team – me, Brian Lockwood and Tony Fisher. They changed the front row completely from the first Test and Lockwood was superb at Odsal. We were the better team and deserved our win. Great Britain went ten years without beating Australia again, so beating them in 1978 was a great achievement.

RR: Is the game harder or softer now?

JM: It’s fast now, but they’ve gone over the top in trying to make it safer. A lot of head highs these days start beneath the head and slide up a little bit, but the penalty is still given. At least we don’t get the broken jaws now. You have to be fit now, but I don’t think it’s harder because there were a lot of nasty blokes in my days!

RR: How did you become Chairman of Widnes?

JM: When I retired I got into the nightclub business, so I had no time to coach. Then I was asked to join the board and enjoyed it. Someone stood down and I became Chairman. We became a limited company and started negotiating with the Council over the new ground. Tony Chambers was the Chairman of a property company and was used to negotiations over land and property, so I suggested he become the new Chairman and sort out the new ground.

RR: There’s a video online of Maurice Lindsay phoning you, trying to sign Martin Offiah. What do you remember of that deal?

JM: Maurice rang and told me Wigan had received a world-record fee for Ellery Hanley and that he wanted to give it to Widnes. I said thanks very much, send it over! As it went on, it was obvious Martin wanted to leave us, so it was just a matter of getting as much money as we could. Maurice offered £380,000. I held out for 500. He told me not to be silly. He said he wouldn’t ring again. Half an hour later he was on the phone again! I said 450. Then we settled on 440. But Maurice went on to destroy Widnes when he was at the RFL. When all the Super League stuff was announced, there was a meeting for the clubs near Manchester Airport. Peter Higham rang me and told me to keep my powder dry, but that the French side had withdrawn, and Widnes were in. So, I didn’t say a word at the meeting and Maurice told me afterwards we were in. He told me I could announce it to the crowd at the next game and I did. They went berserk! Then they had another meeting and Widnes were out. It was unbelievable. People say our troubles were down to signing the likes of Jonathan Davies and John Devereux, but it was being excluded from Super League.

See next week’s League Express for Richard de la Riviere’s next instalment with John Burke.