Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains an image and vision of a deceased person. Readers are warned that there may be words and descriptions that may be culturally sensitive and which might not normally be used in certain public or community contexts.
Don Furner stood before the press last year to spruik for an NRLW team in Canberra to start the 2023 season. Next to him was current Brisbane Bronco, Origin, and Jillaroo star Millie Boyle. Boyle was there ostensibly as a relative local (I tend to consider anywhere in the south coast area as part of the Raiders sphere of influence), and as part of Canberra royalty (her father David Boyle was an excellent centre for the Milk in the early 90s, and her uncle Jason Croker was 100 per cent Jason Croker). So while it wasn’t a surprise that Millie would be there, it was unusual that another team’s player would be part of the Green Machine’s pitch.
The Milk had been clear, as NRL.com’s Brad Walter had reported, that Boyle would be offered a spot should they be accepted into the competition for 2023. This was a pitch for legitimacy for the proposed expansion team. Millie Boyle is a rugby league superstar. Her being at Canberra was a promise to the league that should they win a franchise, this team would be competitive and professional right away. Indeed, it was evidence that the club didn’t see a women’s team just as a ‘nice to have’, but rather a key part of the organisation. To see Boyle there was a statement too from her perspective, given her previous opposition to leaving Brisbane, or joining other expansion teams.
In seeing this it was hard not to think this was all a bit of history repeating. Don Furner pointed to Mal Meninga, but I think he could have looked back even further. They had been down this path before in establishing the men’s team back in the early 1980s. Back then, the role of Millie Boyle was played by David Grant, a similarly hard-running, brutally physical, forward. Grant, a proud indigenous man born in Dubbo (Wiradjuri country) was brought to Canberra for the 1982 season, becoming the inaugural captain of the side. It was immediately considered a turning point. Here was an already excellent prop forward joining the Raiders to lead them in the Sydney competition.
“Powerhouse Balmain forward David Grant became new Sydney Rugby League club Canberra’s most important signing yesterday when he agreed to a three year contact”The Canberra Times, 24 October 1981
Grant was a great player. He ran upright but with power, loping and dancing through the defence when he wanted, but barging through them as needed. He was a man that liked contact; defenders would bounce off him like he was made of marble, but he also had enough mobility to get between them, using a right foot step and fend to get rid of those who would try to tackle him.
He had an elegant offload that could put quicker players into space after he had skittled would be defenders. And in defence he was an enforcer.
When Grant concentrates on the rival ball runner he can have a tremendous influence on the game. I thought his strong tackling of Royce Ayliffe last Sunday blunted Easts’ attack and gave us the chance to get on top. That’s why Grant and our other rugged forwards are so important to our game plansAllan McMahon to the Canberra Times 10 August 1983
But Grant’s purpose was more than just a player. He was there to establish the identity of the Raiders, to ensure a level of competitiveness and professionalism in the club. His expereince in the Sydney competition was critical to establishing a set of standards and an understanding of what would be needed to succeed within the club. As articulated by wife Louise Grant on the Barefoot Rugby League Show, it was uncommon for an Indigenous player to given the leadership reigns in that time. His sheer toughness and resilience was critical in instilling the norms within the team that would carry it forward over the years to come.
During one memorable match for the Raiders, Grant had a head collision with Parramatta forward Chris Phelan, and after receiving 10 stitches at half time he was back on the field in the second half to lead the team to victory. Post-match it has been reported that nearly 40 stitches in total were applied to his injury, which highlights the persistence and never give up attitude of the man that continues to resonate at the club today.Per the Canberra Raiders
Grant was the big name recruit. He wasn’t going to be able to single-handedly make them great, but he could make them respected. Nevertheless he still delivered in those early days, and had his best games in dragging the Green Machine to their first wins in the Sydney competition. The Canberra Times described his efforts in the Raiders first win as such:
“Grant had his biggest game of the season, often using his immense power to break the Newtown line and tackled with his usual vigour”The Canberra Times 19 April 1982
After the Green Machine’s second victory against South Sydney, he was similarly dominant in the game, leading Coach Don Furner to say “on that form, there is not a better prop than Grant in Australia” (The Canberra Times 7 June 1982).
Grant didn’t play for the Raiders after the 1985 season, but he’d been the key foundational stone that would put in place the circumstances that would allow the people that followed him to succeed. Everyone loved him. He looked after everyone. He was the culture and central identity of the team. Canberra became a home of being fearless. Of victories being hard won. When Mal Meninga and Gary Belcher walked into the club they didn’t have to start again. They got to build on already set foundations. The rest was history.
As Wayne Bennett recently said when talking about building the The Dolphins:
Culture, every time. The talent will come and we’ll grow the talent, we’ll find the talent but it’s who we are and what we are and what we stand for is the important things within clubs.Wayno
Millie Boyle would come to Canberra with similar accolades, and with the same capacity to be the foundational stone that the new Raiders team could be built around. She’s got all the skills. She’s a powerful runner, unafraid of contact and as capable and efficient in defence as any in the women’s game. In two seasons for the Broncos she’s easily cleared 100 metres a game. She’s proven herself at the highest level, averaging 137 metres in three State of Origin games for New South Wales. She’s a freaking Jillaroo, has represented and a three time premiership winner. She’s been a part of a club with players like Ali Brigginshaw (the GOAT of women’s rugby league), Tamika Upton and Tarryn Aiken. She has the knowledge of what it takes to win. This would make her an important scene-setter for many players who would be spending their first times in a professional environment. She’s even got a history of heinous injuries to her face, just like David Grant., most famously breaking her nose in the 2020 State of Origin after a brutal head clash with Tazmin Gray. She got up and played the ball because apparently she’s made of steel.
And while many would point to her ‘indiscretion’ with soon-to-be partner Adam Elliott last year as a question mark over her judgement, her willingness to own up to, and speak clearly about her actions on that day is evidence of an accountability that is important for any organisation, especially leaders within organisations.
“I’m sorry if I have disappointed or upset anyone this week, but I have tried to own things as best I can and get on with it. I told the truth straight away.”Millie Boyle as reported in the Sporting News
We all make mistakes. What’s important is how a person reacts to making them. That’s what sets standards for improvement. That’s a crucial part of any organisation.
As the Raiders know Millie Boyle is the kind of player that is a key foundational stone to starting a football team. Boyle could be the certainty that hope is built around. And if the Milk did, they’d be following and tried and true blueprint that helped them build their men’s team back in the 1980s. Millie Boyle would carry the hopes of Raider nation on her shoulders. And do to so she only need to look the example of David Grant and his legacy at the club.