Sunday 18 August 2019

Wise words on turning tribal rivalry into success for Ireland

Signed on a short-term deal, Mathewson has made a massive impact in the red shirt and is a firm fans’ favourite, writes Daragh Small

Alby Mathewson escapes the attentions of Saracens’ Maro Itoje. Photo: SPORTSFILE
Alby Mathewson escapes the attentions of Saracens’ Maro Itoje. Photo: SPORTSFILE

Daragh Small

Alby Mathewson will fly back to Australia on 28 May, hopefully with a PRO14 medal in his back pocket.

He has never spent so much time away from his family. Partner Cara Webber and children - Nixon, Boston and Maddix - are waiting patiently on the Gold Coast and he will try to remember what it was like to be a father again when he gets back.

A few months back, Mathewson highlighted his eagerness to remain with Munster beyond his initial short-term contract, and the impact he has made in the red shirt has been rewarded with a couple of extensions.

With Conor Murray set to play a massive role for Ireland in the Rugby World Cup, the New Zealander has a few months before he says goodbye for good.

But there is plenty to keep him busy for the time being - an online graduate certificate in sports coaching and an inter-provincial derby against Leinster in a PRO14 semi-final.

"It doesn't get any easier. They beat us at their home and we beat them at our home," said scrum-half Mathewson.

"It is obviously another big game, they are a class outfit. There is a good rivalry there as well. It should be a good match."

When they lost to Saracens in the Champions Cup semi-final, Munster knew their 11-year wait for European glory would go on, but a league title is still a distinct possibility.

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Johann van Graan's side are looking to become the first Munster team to win senior silverware since the league title success in 2011.

Munster beat Leinster 19-9 at Thomond Park on May 28, 2011, seven days after Leinster beat Northampton Saints in that season's European Cup final.

Last Saturday Leinster were beaten by Saracens in the Champions Cup decider and must build themselves back up for a massive fixture.

And then on May 12 last year, Leinster defeated Racing 92 in the Champions Cup final before they beat great rivals Munster 16-15 at the RDS a week later.

Leinster were victorious again at the Aviva Stadium in October but Munster returned the favour at Thomond Park over the Christmas period with a show of strength.

"In terms of rivalry, I would say that when I was back in New Zealand it was like Canterbury and Auckland. They are the two powerhouse teams, North and South Island. They don't like each other," said Mathewson.

"There isn't hatred but Auckland are the city slickers and Canterbury are the farmers, country boys. Similarly Dublin is a big city and Limerick not so much."

Mathewson is a Wellington native, he has played for the Hurricanes and Blues in New Zealand, Western Force in Australia and Toulon in France.

He has vast experience throughout the rugby sphere with four caps for the All Blacks as well, and he sees a lot of similarities between the current Irish system and that of his home country.

"I was talking to some of the boys about it. I have seen a few articles about, people commenting, for example, Ulster signing a few players. Someone from Leinster was complaining that we are going to lose our identity if teams keep taking our players," added Mathewson.

"There is a very strong tribalism here. In New Zealand, everything is geared towards the All Blacks, the contracts and everything. For All Black rugby to be strong the idea is that you want the best players in the country on the field.

"Say Leinster have three of the best wingers, in my eyes it is better seeing them play somewhere else so they can be available for Ireland, so you can pick your best players.

"I can see that strong tribalism and identity. It is a good thing to have local players and hold onto them. But at the end of the day you want Ireland to be as strong as possible.

"You need all your best players playing, even if it is for another team."

Mathewson is 33 now, lives in Castletroy and is loving playing his rugby for Munster. He has scored three tries in 20 appearances for the province.

Mathewson joined Munster in August 2018 on an initial four-month deal, but has been kept on since then and added some valuable experience with Murray unavailable for a large part of the season.

He made his Munster debut against Ulster at Thomond Park in September and has since become a fans' favourite in Limerick and Cork.

But he still longs to see his family, and tries to see them as often as possible. It's difficult trying to combine life as a professional rugby player and keeping in touch with your loved ones on the opposite side of the world.

"I FaceTime as much as I can but it is actually quite difficult with the time difference. When they wake up at 6.30am it is 9.30pm here and I'm ready to go to bed," said Mathewson.

"But I try and FaceTime as much as I can. It is my daughter Maddix's birthday in a few days, her second birthday. I have been away for ten months, half her life. My oldest, Nixon, is turning nine in August and Boston will be four in August.

"Even Boston has changed so much in the three months that I have been gone. It is not easy. My partner has got to look after all three by herself. She is doing a pretty good job."

But Mathewson will get to see his family soon and he is determined to stay busy with Munster and his studies. "I am homesick now. It is the longest I have been away from them. At this stage, with the end of the season coming, so much has changed.

"My daughter - the other two I have spent plenty of time with - but my daughter is so young. She will look at the phone and talk a little bit. But it is tough when they are that young. The other two, you can have a conversation with them.

"But it is good training with the boys and stuff, rather than sitting at home by myself at night. You start thinking about it and you get a little bit homesick as I live by myself.

"When I moved over I wasn't sure. I am 34 in December and I didn't know anyone here. I wasn't keen to move in with just anyone. I don't mind living by myself either.

"The boys are just across in a different estate across the road anyway. All the boys are pretty close. I don't spend a whole lot of time at home. I am training all day, I go out for coffee, maybe come home, study, eat something and go to bed."

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