Jim Mills: The Welsh rugby codebreaker who went North and never looked back

Drew Darbyshire

We’ve had a chat with Wales and Widnes legend Jim Mills on why he decided to quit rugby union and go up North to play rugby league.

The Welshman grew up playing rugby union and made it into the Cardiff first-team in 1963.

He spent two years at the club, before deciding to switch codes to rugby league, move up North and turn into a professional player.

Mills, now 74, signed with Halifax in 1965, before enjoying spells at Salford, Bradford Northern, North Sydney and Workington.

He became an icon at Widnes though, where he spent a total of eight years, playing almost 200 games for the club and winning two Challenge Cups in the process.

Mills was part of a generation of Welsh players who left their homeland to go North and become rugby league legends.

You started out playing rugby union Jim, so why did you decide to cross codes?

“I was playing for Cardiff’s first-team in rugby union and I was in the youth system with Colin Dixon, and Colin recommended me to Halifax.

“A scout from Halifax came down, approached me and asked me if I was interested and I said yes, because I didn’t have a job at the time so it just went from there.”

There was a big Welsh contingent who swapped rugby union for rugby league, why was that?

“The black lads in Wales had never played internationally and that was in 1978 or something like that. Colin went North when he was 17 because he knew he couldn’t have a future in rugby union in Wales. Rugby league was a good path for us Welsh lads to go down and once we went North, that was it.”

You still live in the Widnes area, but have you ever wanted to move back to South Wales?

“I got married and have family here, so I can’t take all my family down there. They grew up and go to school here so its hard to go back.

“Most Welshmen don’t go back because all their family roots are up North. I came up here when I was 19 and I’m 74 now so I’ve been up her a lot longer than I was in Wales!”

You are regarded as a legend in Widnes, what is your favourite moment of playing there?

“The biggest highlight of my career was my first Wembley appearance when we beat Warrington. I scored the only try in the 1975 final, so that was the highlight.”

How would you compare the international game now to when you were playing in the 60s and 70s?

“As the Wales rugby union team are now professional, the Welsh players aren’t coming up North anymore. There’ll be no more Jonathan Davies’ and John Bevan’s coming up now because there is more money in rugby union – that’s the end of it.

“I went to watch the Wales rugby league team play Ireland and there was lads from Coventry – no disrespect to them – some from Halifax, and some of them hadn’t even played first-team rugby. Having said that, the spirit in that side was great and they did really well, but I don’t think there will be superstars coming over anymore. England are still very strong though.”

What do you think Wales have to do to develop?

“They’ve got to go to grassroots really and develop the game through the amateur game. They don’t do a lot down there now.

“They need to spread rugby league in Wales and do it from there because I dont think they’ll get the big rugby union signings anymore because obviously they get more money down there. If it was the same when we played, we wouldn’t have come up North because we would be getting more money in Wales.”

Do you get to many Widnes games nowadays?

“I’m chairman of the Past Players Association with Widnes. I don’t go to all the games but I go to a fair few throughout the season and they have a past players dinner every year, which I attend.

“It’s really sad what is happening at the moment. Widnes in the 70s and 80s were one of the best clubs in rugby league so its sad to see them go like this. Its all down to investment – if you don’t invest in the club then you’ll go down and that’s what’s happened.”