Stags train under the scrutiny of NBA star

VISIT: Southland Stags rugby player Tim Cornforth (right) with his son Isaiah (3) and his cousin Patty Mills.
VISIT: Southland Stags rugby player Tim Cornforth (right) with his son Isaiah (3) and his cousin Patty Mills.

A celebrity spectator has been keeping a close eye on Southland Stags' rugby training over the past few days.

San Antonio Spurs point guard and Australian Boomers' basketballer Patty Mills has been in Invercargill since Friday, catching up with his cousin, Stags' winger Tim Cornforth.

Mills, who left for the United States yesterday, surprised Cornforth by turning up to training at Rugby Park unannounced on Saturday.

"It's a real privilege and a real honour, he got time to even come here," Cornforth said.

"I'm pretty much like his older brother and he's like my little brother. It's been like that ever since."

Mills starred for Australia at the recent London Olympics, where he was the leading scorer in the tournament, with 21.5 points per game.

Mills and Cornforth's conflicting sports schedules make it difficult for them to see each other, and Cornforth said it had been great to meet up with him for a couple of days.

Cornforth's parents, Tim and Della, are also in the city catching up with him and his wife, Beth, and the couple's two children, Isaiah, 3, and Isla, four weeks.

Mills had never previously visited Invercargill, but had enjoyed the slower pace of life in the city.

"It's my first time in Invercargill. It's nice and small and everyone knows each other," he said.

Cornforth said many of the basketball fans in the Stags' squad had posed for photographs with Mills and got his autograph.

The cousins were both educated at Marist College in Canberra and Cornforth said Mills was a more than useful rugby player growing up, and could have easily gone down that path.

"He would have made it any sport," Cornforth said. Mills was a late-season pick-up for the Spurs, last season.

He played the final 16 games of the NBA regular season, and proved to be an excellent addition, averaging 10.3 points per game - including a career high 34 against the Golden State Warriors.

Mills, who is contracted to the Spurs for the next two seasons, was aiming to push for greater court-time this year and continue to improve as a player.

Playing with some of the most talented basketballers in the world like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili was a dream come true for Mills.

"They're great guys and great team-mates. They look after you and make you feel comfortable.

"Tim and Manu are getting a bit older now. They want to have a last crack at (the NBA title), before they retire."

Former Australian sevens player, Cornforth is in his second season with the Stags. He headed to Southland to concentrate on the 15-man game and try his luck with the Midlands club, and has been able to force his way into the NPC squad.

Cornforth has been rested for Southland's next game against Tasman in Blenheim tomorrow night.

The Stags have been boosted by Elliot Dixon's long awaited return from injury. The hard-running No 8 has been sidelined since May after suffering a chest injury, while playing for the Highlanders against the Sharks in Durban.

Dixon's return means Eastern Northern Barbarians loose forward Scott McKee, who debuted against Otago last week, switches to blindside flanker.

Stags coach David Henderson has handed a starting debut to young winger Junior Ngaluafe, with Mark Wells also gaining his first start of the year, on the left wing. Highlanders' outside back Kade Poki moves into centre with Nathan Hohaia dropping to the bench.

SOUTHLAND TEAM TO FACE TASMAN Marty McKenzie, Junior Ngaluafe, Kade Poki, Cardiff Vaega, Mark Wells, Robbie Robinson, Jimmy Cowan, Elliot Dixon, Alex Taylor, Scott McKee, Michael Fatialofa, Josh Bekhuis, Nick Barrett, Talemaitoga Tuapati, Jamie Mackintosh (capt). Reserves: Jason Rutledge, Micheal Peterson, Alex Ryan, Hoani Macdonald, Nemia Kenatale, Scott Eade, Nathan Hohaia.

The Southland Times