Tears and handshake for league thuggery 33 years ago

Last updated 00:41 29/06/2008

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It was easy to mistake the two men strolling together across the hotel lawn on a glorious English summer day as the best of mates sharing a joke.

But when former rugby league props John Greengrass and Jim Mills met this month for the first time in 33 years, they buried the bitterness of one of the most brutal incidents ever seen on a sports field.

It happened in Swansea, 1975. New Zealand were playing Wales and Kiwi Greengrass surged through the Welsh defence to score at the feet of Mills.

Without warning, Mills lifted his right boot and, with his entire 114kg frame behind it, sank it sickeningly into the Kiwi prop's skull.

As Greengrass left the field, the word from the bench was "he couldn't come off for a scratch". That was until they removed the blood-soaked towel to reveal a gaping head wound. He went to hospital for 15 stitches in his face and never played for his country again. Mills was given an early bath by the French referee and a six-month suspension and the Kiwis banned him from playing in New Zealand for life, although Australia decided not to follow suit.

To this day, Mills does not know why he did it. He would not dispute his reputation as one of the hardest, most uncompromising players Britain has ever produced, but stamping was never his style.

"I've only seen the incident once and I cringed," said Mills, now 63. "You know when you look at something and you can't believe what you're doing.

"I can never explain it. Brainstorm, stupidity, moment of madness. The only thing I can think of is that I blamed myself for him scoring. You think, `Bloody hell, what have I done here?' When you do something like that there's no way back."

Mills, worried about what might happen after the match, failed to apologise to Greengrass on the day.

"I was stood at one end of the bar talking to my dad and we saw John come in with his bandage on. I thought it was best to keep out of the way in case I started a punch-up."

One by one, the Wales players came up and apologised to Greengrass following their one-point victory, and sent their team-mate to Coventry.

Greengrass, who still bears the scars of that day, returned to Christchurch and his job in the freezing industry where he still works, playing club rugby for Linwood.

But the infamy of that day lived on in the grainy black and white television images and morbid public interest for more than three decades.

So when he and his wife, Chris, planned a trip to see family in London this month, he decided he simply had to see Mills and shake hands.

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"Back home it's brought up all the time," Greengrass said. "They talk about the worst incidents in football and that's always shown.

"We'll be having a few beers at the local rugby club and I'll get stick all the time like `how did old Jim miss your mouth?'

"I was bitter for a couple of years, but life's too short to hold grudges. I'd have been very disappointed if I'd come all this way and not met Jim."

Greengrass got a phone number from Frank Endacott, who knew Mills, but when he called, Mills hung up on him.

"I thought it was an Aussie taking the mickey," he said. It was only when Chris sent Mills a text from her New Zealand mobile phone that he realised it was not a hoax.

"You couldn't get a worse incident and to have him come over here and offer the hand of friendship means a lot to me. It's made me feel a lot better. That incident has niggled me all my rugby career. I didn't just upset John and New Zealand, I upset a lot of people."

When the pair parted, it was an emotional farewell.

"I had tears in my eyes and so did John," Mills said. "I thought, 'Bloody hell, if they could see us now!"'

- Sunday Star Times

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