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How the Swans plucked a rugby duckling

This article was published in July, 2016.

Ray Mills could play a bit.

He was fast, beautifully balanced and skilful, with a nice little dose of aggression in his game. It took him to three consecutive WAFL flags with Perth in the 1960s and four state games for Western Australia.

So it is probably no great surprise that his young grandson, Callum, was prepared to spend his Saturday mornings at AusKick, even though he grew up in Terrey Hills, in the rugby-codes heartland of Sydney’s northern suburbs.

Then, for six years, rugby union took a hold, with Callum creating the play in his role as a five-eighth with the Warringah Rats juniors.

Appropriately, Callum Mills – this week’s AFL Rising Star nominee – was drawn back into the Australian football fold when the Swans came calling, although not in the way you might imagine.

One of his mates, Ollie, was playing junior footy with the Mosman Swans, and when the team was a struggling for numbers one weekend, Ollie’s father rang to see if Mills would be interested in filling in.

In a quirk of fate, Ollie’s father was Andrew Pridham, at the time a Sydney Swans board member, now the chairman.

“Andrew was involved with the coaching of his son’s team and they were short of numbers so he rang Callum’s parents to see if he could come down to have a kick,’’ Mosman Swans president Justin Dethridge said.

Mills rocked up having already played a game of rugby and being ”quite sore actually’’.

“Anyway, as it transpired the coaches were blown away by this young skinny blond-haired kid who basically dominated the game, having never played it before,’’ Dethridge said.

“I’ve heard Callum say on a number of occasions that he couldn’t believe the positive feedback that came his way after that match, because he didn’t really know what he was doing.

“Callum couldn’t believe the positive feedback that came his way after that match, because he didn’t really know what he was doing.”

– Mosman juniors president Justin Dethridge

“Well, they encouraged him to stick with it and he went on to win a succession of accolades for our club from the U13s through to the U16s. In 2012 he was our club champion, even though he was 14 and playing up an age group, and he would have had claims the following year, but our rules state that you can’t go back to back.’’

Mills soon attracted the attention of the Sydney Swans Academy and state representative teams, and also played a few senior games with the North Shore Bombers.

Jon Hayres, who was the North Shore senior coach at the time, said that right from the start Mills “stood out as an athlete’’.

“Obviously coming across from rugby his kicking skills weren’t too flash at that stage

He first came and trained with the senior squad as a 14-year-old and although, because of his physical build at the time it was challenging, he was certainly capable of keeping up with the pace of training,’’ Hayres said.

“We selected him for his first senior game as a 16 year old and I think he had 40-odd touches.

“He’s always been the type of kid who’s been fine playing above his age group. A really competitive kid, very courageous, and he’s just got better and better.

Not surprisingly to anyone who has seen Mills in his 14 AFL games for Sydney this season, Hayres said the youngster had always stood out as a contested mark and strong tackler.

“No doubt the rugby’s had some influence with the tackling, but I think it’s just his general nature,’’ Hayres said. “He loves the contest and he’s a strong kid for his size.’’

Mills was drafted by Sydney with pick No.3 last year after an impressive season that included selection in the U18s All Australian team. He was the first footballer from metropolitan Sydney to be selected in the national draft’s top 10.

Used in the backline this season, he has averaged 18 disposals a game, culminating in a season-high 23 possessions and maiden goal in the 38-point win against Geelong last Friday night.

Hayres for one is confident there is much more to come, describing Mills as “a really grounded young man’’.

“He’s always looking to better himself, but importantly he always stayed in the moment and never got ahead of himself.’’

There is enough to suggest that, like his grandad, Mills is fast, beautifully balanced and skilful, with a nice little dose of aggression.

Sydney fans will also be hoping that, like Ray, Callum Mills has three consecutive premierships in him.