Thursday 21 November 2019

Try-hungry flanker keen to make an impression in new home

Chance to link up with Pat Lam again was too good to turn down for Auckland-born prospect

Nepia Fox-Matamua is trying to deflect praise for his try-scoring exploits
Nepia Fox-Matamua is trying to deflect praise for his try-scoring exploits

Daragh Small

There was little known of Nepia Fox-Matamua in Ireland when Connacht coach Pat Lam announced he had acquired the services of another New Zealander back in March.

The openside situation looked bleak at the Sportsground - Willie Faloon was on his way back to Ulster, while Jack Heenan had suffered another injury setback.

Lam was searching for back-row options, with academy graduates Eoin McKeon and Eoghan Masterson the two left to fill the void.

But Lam identified his man, an Auckland native who played schools rugby with his son back home.

Fox-Matamua was thrilled when the opportunity arose, but not even he could have foreseen the blistering start he would make to his career in the west of Ireland.

The 24-year-old has three tries in his opening three Pro12 games since he made his debut in the 29-23 win over Dragons at the Sportsground.

He has also played every minute of every game and is excited about what's to come for him and the province this season.

"I am really loving it here. It has been an eye-opening experience so far for me. Everyone was really helpful while I set up, especially the other foreign boys," says Fox-Matamua.

"I suppose they know what it is like to come into a new set-up like this, not knowing anyone really. The boys have been great.

"It wasn't too difficult to make the move. Obviously, I miss my family but knowing the opportunities that lie ahead, and the challenge with the rugby, it was a good decision that I made.

"When I first started off with Auckland in the academy, Pat Lam was already coaching the Blues (Super Rugby side). We would come into contact every now and then, and I knew Pat from his son Michigan, who was in my school.

"So Pat would have come in and helped with a bit of coaching in the school every now and then, and that's when I met him first."

Fox-Matamua started out in rugby when he was nine with the Otahuhu in Auckland, where his father, Charles, was one of the coaches of their mini-rugby team.

From there he went to St Peter's College, a school that doesn't have a strong rugby heritage, but he played there with some familiar names.


Lam's nephew Ben, who now plays Sevens rugby for New Zealand is a past pupil, as is recent Munster import Francis Saili.

"St Peter's is not one of the bigger rugby schools in Auckland but they do punch above their weight. In some regards it reminds me of Connacht," says Fox-Matamua.

"They might not have all of the resources but there is a lot of heart there. Back at school we always seemed to do better than expected. That is one of the things that made this opportunity so attractive to me.

"Francis was in the same year as me - I didn't know he was moving to Ireland too. Then his opportunity came up and he asked: 'what do you think, should I go?'

"I thought it was an amazing opportunity, he has gone to a good club too. We are not far away, we are about an hour and 20 minutes' drive away from each other.

"We haven't caught up just yet because we have been busy with rugby, but when we get a bit of time, we will."

Fox-Matamua played ITM Cup for Auckland and North Harbour. But a ligament injury to his right knee scuppered his chances of featuring for the All Blacks at U-20 level.

He did, however, play club rugby against fellow Connacht flanker Heenan back home, and he's helped Fox-Matamua settle in.

"Jake was part of the Auckland academy and we played a little bit of Colts stuff together before," says Fox-Matamua.

"He and his girlfriend were really helpful at the start here because we didn't have a car. They've helped me and my girlfriend, running us about and stuff like that."

During his down-time after the bonus-point win over Cardiff, where he dotted down again, Fox-Matamua spent a few days in the sun of Italy.

He travelled to the outskirts of Pisa with his girlfriend Kate, whom he lives with in Galway, and he feels refreshed ahead of a testing period for Connacht.

Connacht are fourth in the Pro12 prior of their clash with Zebre at the Sportsground this evening. It signals the start of the 16-week block of fixtures and Nepia can't wait to get back into it.

"Pat said there was an opportunity to play a lot of rugby, with the big run of games we have coming up," he says.

"There is 21 games in 22 weeks so there is plenty of rugby to play. There is an opportunity to get a lot of minutes under my belt.

"I think I get a bit too much credit for the tries I scored so far. They came off the back of forward pack moves. I am just finishing off the boys' hard work.

"Rugby here is a lot different to back home, people told me it was going to be a lot more physical and that has proven to be the case.

"There is a lot more emphasis on strength and conditioning in the gym especially. It is probably one of the biggest differences, and the game-play is more direct.

"It is a massive challenge but I enjoy it, I just need to play consistently good rugby and keeping pushing to make the starting side.

"We want to qualify for the Champions Cup and finish as high as we can in the Pro12, and that's the main objectives for the season."

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