“We just had one of those years last year where we were untouchable. It was probably the best season of my career.”
These words expressed by Grant Millington when he met Get ’em Onside recently are some that Castleford fans will read and instantly recall one of the most dominant Super League seasons the competition has ever seen. It is something that the 31 year old remembers fondly. “Sometimes we still look back and think ‘how did this all happen?'” he admitted but something that comes across clearly from spending time speaking to Millington is that he is focused entirely on the Tigers 2018 campaign now and it is one which hasn’t been as scintillating as their 2017 efforts.
Agreeing that it has been a frustrating opening half of the season for Castleford, the forward praised how the team have nevertheless maintained a place at the higher end of the competition. “The weather hasn’t been conducive to the way we like to play rugby but it’s taught us a lesson in how to play a different way. We’ve been grinding out games and being in the dogfight, building the score, taking the two points and ticking away at the scoreboard,” the former Cronulla Shark explained. Last season, that couldn’t have been further from the Tigers’ thoughts as they dominated all before them in the regular season as, more times than not, they took any opportunity to drive for the try line. That is something that Millington believes will again return to the Cas’ play as we reach summer, articulating that “once we get a bit more fluency I hope we can start to kick on. Now the pitches have dried up and the weather is good, hopefully we can get our passing game going again.” It would, of course, be remiss to not articulate how vital the positions of full back and the halves are to the way a team play and, in the off season, those are two roles which Castleford brought in new players. “We’ve had Benny [Roberts] and Truey [Jake Trueman], we’ve had Galey and Jamie [Ellis] in the halves and now McShane in there…” With such rotation – often enforced – in the key positions, it is understandable, then, that Millington feels the team are still to gel completely. He further added that the team have worked on new structures which have been slightly simplified in order for players who have to alter positions to still be able to slot seamlessly in.
Despite their arguably disjointed start, there was understandable pressure on Castleford to push at the top again this season after the previous year’s exploits. Millington expressed that the team know that there is outside pressure as well as that they put on themselves. “It was pretty heavy at the start of the season, externally as well as ourselves, and after the first month we realised that we had to change things a little. That pressure went away a bit internally because we were winning games,” he explained. There is still, Millington believes, pressure from fans and pundits remaining; “we still get the ‘Cas aren’t what they were last year’ and we’re not – we’re a different side playing a bit differently.” When Get ’em Onside suggested that part of Castleford’s slow start may have been down to teams possibly working out how they play, the Australian admitted that “I think teams worked out how we played towards the end of last season but everything clicked so well and they couldn’t stop it!”
Conversation went towards the most enjoyable games that the no-nonsense forward has experienced so far this season. “I know they’ve not been doing so well but Catalans at home was a good game for us,” he shared. “We’d struggled a bit defensively coming into that game and that’s the most solid we’ve felt this year.” Of course, though, there was mention of the match at Elland Road between Cas and Leeds, a rematch of 2017’s Grand Final and a game which Millington believes will have its’ positives for the Tigers in the long run. “We’ve got to learn a lesson from Leeds and the Grand Final in the fact that it’s about winning the big games,” he admitted, adding that “we got there, we blew a lot of teams away during the year but Leeds did their job, won the games to get into the top four and then it’s just about winning those games – whatever you have to do to win them.” Adding in a previously made point, the New South Wales native expressed his belief that the club’s ability to slowly build a score and grind wins out that has been demonstrated this season could benefit the Tigers towards the business end of the season. Of the March contest between the West Yorkshire neighbours, Millington suggested that the Tigers perhaps didn’t get enough credit for their part in the match. “We copped a bit of flak for that game. We played really well for twenty minutes,” agreeing with Get ’em Onside’s suggestion that it was the sort of rugby Castleford produced in 2017, before continuing that “Leeds came back, they had the ascendancy for the rest of the match but we held on – we won, we did whatever we had to do to win the match.”
After arriving in England and with the Tigers in 2012, Millington played under Ian Millward before the two-time Super League Coach of the Year Daryl Powell arrived from Featherstone Rovers. A man who has a reputation for developing players from lower reaches, his coaching – both himself and of his staff – is responsible for the emergence of the likes of Luke Gale and Greg Eden as top Super League players. His capacity for development, however, has also touched Millington who clearly professed his belief that he has become a better player under Powell’s tutelage. “I’ve definitely improved. Powelly is really good at motivating me personally and helping people recognise what your skill-set is and then structuring game plans around that, using your strengths in the right way to help the team progress,” he articulated. A question that Get ’em Onside asked recently to Andy Lynch was whether he personally saw a season like 2017 coming when Powell arrived at the club. When the same query was put to the Australian, he admitted he didn’t. “No way, not initially. I knew Powelly was a very good coach but the facilities and the stigma we had as a lower side… we thought we’d climb the ladder slowly and aim for the top eight but then we started to have a bit of success and people could see what he and people in the offices were building at the club. We started being able to attract different sorts of players. We started to push on, build something and now we’re in a position where we can hopefully win more silverware.”
Speaking of the bad weather the UK was besieged by in the early months of this year, it was hard to avoid the topic of 2018’s own ‘Watersplash’, Easter Monday’s Wheldon Road clash between Castleford and Warrington. “They were definitely the worst conditions I’ve played in! It was one of those games where, if you were held down in the tackle, you could have drowned,” he explained, “it wasn’t a nice feeling knowing that was a possibility.” However, despite joining the Tigers when they were, as he admitted, a bottom end side and experiencing some of the hardships that came with that, Millington is now a key part of a team which is aiming to truly break the status quo of Super League’s big teams. The 2017 Super League Dream Teamer – “making that was fantastic, it was something I never really thought would happen for me” – believes that he is currently at a club who are certainly moving in a positive direction. “It’s definitely exciting. With the stadium coming and stuff behind the scenes, it’s a good place to be. Jon Wells has come in, he’s bridging the gap between the office staff and the playing side of things, everyone saw his impact straight away with the Liam Watts signing.” That signing is one which the Aussie views as great for the team. “He’s great. We need the aggression he brings, we want him to get off the line and in people’s faces,” he explained, further adding that “we’re seen as a good footballing side but, at times, we’ve probably missed that bit of aggression, that go forward and mongrel in the defensive side of the game. It’s something we’ve been begging for and I think he’s one of the best forwards in the country – it’s fantastic.”
The former Canterbury Bulldog himself, for all of his ball-playing skill, is a no-nonsense, fierce competitor on the field who, like what one imagines is the majority of rugby league players, doesn’t want to give an inch on the field. However, in the recent game against Wigan Warriors (a 28-12 defeat for Cas) Sky Sports commentators remarked about an apparent injury sustained by Millington. When Get ’em Onside asked the forward whether he actually was, the response sounded rather brutal. “I’d dislocated my kneecap!” As I grimaced, he further explained that it isn’t as dramatic as it may initially sound. “I subluxed it, it came out and went back in. It’s something that happens every now and then for me, probably about once a year, it’s painful but I carry on. It settles down during the week and it’s fine.” While the injury itself doesn’t seem to overly bother Millington, the fact that the commentators were able to pick up on it does! “They were right with that one, I’m usually quite good at hiding stuff like that but they picked up on it!”
On his future with the club, Millington himself has a deal which, currently, expires at the end of the 2020 campaign and is hoping to have the opportunity to play in the Tigers’ planned new home. “I definitely want to! It’s just a case of how good the body is – I’m 31 now, the body feels great. Sometimes I might not look it when I’m warming up but when I get into it I’m alright!” he beamed. “I think my body feels better now than when I first arrived. I’d had shoulder reconstructions in the two years before I came over and then a dose of tendonitis in the knee. Everything settled, though, and the body learns to cope so, while I might run a bit funny, it’s stopping me from being in pain!”
When Get ’em Onside arranged to meet with Millington for this interview, a fellow Tigers player shared that Cas’ number 10 was one of the nicest blokes anybody could wish to meet. After spending a short while with the forward, it is fair to say that this writer agrees. Turning up in shorts, t-shirt, cap and flip flops, it is quite apparent that you can take the man out of Australia but you can’t take the Australia out of the man. However, with six years so far under his belt with Castleford and hearing the positive way he speaks about the club, it is plain to see that he will also carry part of the club with him through the future.