NICK CAIN finds London Welsh skipper Jonathan Mills is a Realist with an optimistic streak

Lyn Jones and Jonathan Mills pose with the Premiership trophyJonathan Mills is full of pioneer spirit despite the giant survival task facing him and his newly promoted band of London Welsh brothers. As the captain of the Welsh Exiles surveys the savage terrain ahead he knows that no-one gives them a prayer of surviving their first Premiership season, with the general concensus that their bones will be bleaching in sector 12, relegation zone, by the middle of the campaign.
The upside is that Mills and his team-mates are already well-acquainted with the survival game and, despite a hellish start with their first two fixtures pitching them against Leicester, the team with the best record in the Premiership, at the Kassam, and then away to the newly-crowned English champions, Harlequins, there’s no sense of panic.
London Welsh have become used to living on the edge. They have weathered the decline from being the most renowned club side in world rugby in the Seventies, to drifting into mediocrity for a quarter of a century before this latest surge put them back among the elite.
A remarkable seven London Welsh players were picked in the legendary 1971 Lions squad – still the only Lions team to have won a series in New Zealand – including superstars of that era like the captain, John Dawes, Gerald Davies, JPR Williams, Mervyn Davies, and John Taylor, who, as managing director, provides the current team with a direct link to that glorious past.
Since Mills, 28, joined London Welsh as a blindside flanker from the Scarlets five years ago he says there has never been a dull moment at Old Deer Park, and a cursory glance at the hairpin bends the club has had to negotiate over the past three seasons soon reveals why.
During the course of the 2009-10 season the Welsh were on the brink of extinction following an abortive takeover by would-be tycoon Neil Hollinshead, with £2.6m in funding that never materialised. With Taylor and long-time benefactor Kelvin Bryon devising a successful rescue plan to keep the club afloat, and Lyn Jones arriving as head coach last season after leaving the Ospreys, the players, with Mills to the fore, responded with a storming play-off run to win promotion.
However, no sooner had they reached the promised land than the RFU and the Premiership, using restrictive ground criteria as a barrier, denied them entry. The Welsh refused to be locked out, and, led by their QC chairman, Bleddyn Phillips, the club moved its home stadium from Old Deer Park to the Kassam in Oxford to win a landmark High Court ruling over the summer so that Mills and his men took their rightful place in the 12-team Premiership line-up.

Jonathan Mills taking a lineout
Jonathan Mills taking a lineout

To come through trials and tribulations of that magnitude you need character, and that is why when Mills says his minimum requirement from the coming campaign is to stay up, and explains why he thinks it is possible, you hesitate to dismiss it out of hand.
“I’d love to have a second season of Premiership rugby – that’s what I’d say is a successful season. We’re a hard-working squad, and without any new signings I’m sure that the boys from last season would have given it a good shot. But we’ve had quality internationals with plenty of experience come in, and the way Lyn Jones has looked at the squad is impressive. He has only brought in players who he believes can help us move to another level.”
Whether new signings Gavin Henson – once he returns from the fractured cheekbone sustained in last weekend’s friendly against the Scarlets – Tom Arscott, Neil Briggs, Ed Williamson, Paulica Ion, Kirill Kulemin and new French prop arrivals Franck Montanella and Arthur Joly can live up to the billing Mills gives them will probably be decisive.
There is certainly plenty of room for doubt, given that none apart from Henson has been a regular top tier Test player.
However, Mills is undaunted despite London Welsh having only half the funding of its Premiership rivals and, due to the disastrous delay caused by the restrictive ground criteria, having less than two months in which to make signings and reparations for the season.
“It will be about getting used to the Premiership and being ready week-in week-out to play against battle hardened sides. It will also be about understanding that rather than winning 75 per cent of our matches we might end up losing 75 per cent of them, and to battle through even though it is hard times.
“It’s a tough league where the front five is crucial, and we’ll have to match the opposition in that area first so that we can play some rugby and express ourselves. Sometimes attack is better than defence, and we have to remember that won us promotion.”
Mills is as phlegmatic about the Henson injury as he is the horror start: “Gavin is a quality individual, a proven international player for Wales, so any side would miss him. However, we will get injuries, and we’ve got a good squad. For instance, our other fly-half, Gordon Ross, helped to get us into the Premiership, and it’s important to have competition in the squad and for everyone to take their chance when it comes along. As for having our opening games against last season’s Grand Finalists, it’s not ideal, but anything can happen. We hope to get confidence from two good results, and we’ll go into both games believing we can win.”
Mills also promises there will be no pre-match kneeling at Leicester’s altar in today’s inaugural Premiership match at the Kassam.
“Every game will be a cup final for us, and against Leicester we’ll look to win the game – like we will every game. Leicester are traditionally the Premiership’s most successful side, and to have a chance against such formidable opponents you have to match them up front in the power game. We will also influence the game as much as we can rather than allow them to dictate the tempo.”
As captain, he says he will not hesitate to put the team first if coach Jones wants him to transfer his 6ft 5in (1.95m), 17st 8lb (112kg) to the second row to combat the Premiership power packs: “It’s a bit more pushing in the scrum than at blindside, but I’m just happy to be on the pitch. I’ll do whatever I have to for the club, and that’s the attitude throughout this London Welsh squad.”
Mills says that team spirit and an inspirational coach are among the great strengths the newcomers bring with them. “London Welsh will be very close-knit and have a good team ethos. We’ll really work for each other, and stay strong.
“Lyn Jones is a quality coach. He could not put his own stamp on the club as much as he’d have liked last season because he inherited most of the squad, but he’s taken us on and has made us hard to beat. He is one of those coaches who wants you to leave each session as a better player. He puts a smile on your face in training, and brings the best out of you.”
The other London Welsh strength, fostered by the canny Jones, is a clear-cut mindset. Mills says: “I don’t expect there to be a lot of change. We will look to what worked for us in the Championship being the same in the Premiership just as long as we execute well enough.”
However, he pinpoints a significant difference. “In the Championship you would probably create 10 chances and only take three of them, but generally that would be enough to win. In the Premiership we’ll probably only get four chances all game and therefore to be successful we’ll probably have to score from all of them. In a sense that is not new to us because it is what we had to do when we went to the Cornish Pirates in the first leg of the Championship play-off final. We took every chance we got in Cornwall, and gave them no chance to get back at us.”
Mills also cherishes his leadership role: “It is a massive honour to captain the club. When I first joined London Welsh we were fighting relegation, and to come full circle and get the chance to play in the Premiership is a great feeling. We’re all in it for each other, and as the captain it’s very important to lead from the front. I’ll try to carry to get us over the gain-line, and will do the best I can to set an example and demand the best out of my team-mates, too.”
Mills and his men face their Premiership ordeal with few illusions, but they cling to the concept that where there is collective belief and spirit, there is always a chance of survival, however slender.

Leave a Comment