ADAM MILNER admits it was a struggle at times living in the shadow of Daryl Clark – but one that only made him all the more determined to establish himself as Castleford Tigers’ leading No 9.
The hooker had to play second fiddle for most of last year as Clark – who came through the Academy with him at Castleford – blazed a trail on the way to a personal treble of Man of Steel, Super League Young Player of the Year and England honours.
Clark, of course, left in a £180,000 transfer to Warrington Wolves, having returned from a tour Down Under with the national side and Milner was left with the prospect of fighting to take over the Tigers role in 2015.
The 23-year-old – Clark is a little younger at 22 – has clearly done so having firmly established himself in Daryl Powell’s side ahead of this evening’s Super 8s game in Perpignan.
Obviously, they are different types, Milner a more aggressive, industrious dummy-half compared to his colleague’s sheer pace and dynamism, but his team role is now clearly defined.
Asked if there was anything which made him realise he had to deliver this year, the player who debuted with Castleford aged 18 in 2010 said: “There was a lot of... not pressure as such... but people didn’t know if I could do it.
“They were big boots to fill after Daz left following such a successful season. It was frustrating for me last year but I’m one of Daz’s mates and I was pleased with how well he was going.
“But I did wish that was kind of… well, kind of me doing what he was doing. That’s why I’m just looking to get better and be one of the best hookers in the league.
“At the start of the year, I just thought to myself I was good enough to be the No 9 at Cas and, now, I do think I’ve gone pretty well this year.
“I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve played a lot more game time. I struggled last season and it was probably one of my worst in spite of the club having such a good year.
“But this season especially I think I’ve found my feet and become a regular. I’m enjoying doing the hard stuff. Sometimes that doesn’t go noticed but every time I’m out there I’m looking to put a big stint in for the lads. I think I’ve responded well.”
He has indeed. Powell signed experienced Scott Moore from London Broncos but Milner managed to see off his challenge, the player since being moved on to Wakefield, and has started 13 of his 23 games this season.
Milner endured the disappointment of missing out on Castleford’s Wembley appearance against Leeds Rhinos 12 months ago, not being selected, but is proving quietly integral.
If they win tonight and maintain their 100 per cent record in the Super 8s after wins over Hull FC and Warrington Wolves, they will be on course to equal, if not surpass, last season’s best Super League finish of fourth.
Obviously, they need to do so if they are going to qualify for the semi-finals under the new format and Milner believes they are shaping up well for that.
Having shown his own early pedigree when captaining England Academy to an historic double over the Australian Schoolboys five years ago, he said: “There’d been a bit of pressure on us because of that heavy defeat in our final regular game against Warrington.
“We got criticised and people said that we were starting to leak or falter. But the way we responded has been outstanding. We knocked Hull and Warrington off and now we’re looking forward to a big challenge at Catalans.”
Only leaders Leeds Rhinos and Huddersfield Giants have won in Perpignan this term.
Tigers came close before losing 13-12 in February and it will be a sign of their progression if they can go better this evening.
Granted, the hosts have little to play for; last week’s defeat at Huddersfield means they are 10 points adrift of the top-four with five games to go. But they do have great pride in that home record.
Castleford may be aided given, rather than the arduous four-day route ordinarily taken by most visiting clubs, they are flying to France this morning and out again tonight, having chartered a plane for the first time.