Lions 2013: Every cloud has a silver lining…

Photos: SPA Images

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The saying ‘For every negative, there is a positive’, is perhaps the most applicable spin to apply to the controversial elements of the British & Irish Lions tour Down Under thus far. Last Tuesday’s 64-0 whitewash of a NSW/QLD Combined Country team, following hot on the heels of last week’s 69-17 despatching of a ‘second string’ Western Force outfit, has led many, for the most part of a northern hemisphere persuasion, to question the very existence of such ‘one-sided’ affairs.

But while the validity of these fixtures as a true contest may be rightly questioned given the apathy shown towards them by the selectors in Perth, and the sheer inevitability of the mismatch in Newcastle – certainly from the tourists and the paying public’s perspective – try telling the players involved on both losing sides that these games should be confined to the history books, and that the opportunity afforded to them should be denied to future generations of willing participants.

For all the hyperbole surrounding the ‘weakened’ squad the Western Force fielded against the Lions last Wednesday, if nothing else, it gave an opportunity to players who dream of making that step to the next level a permanent one. With coach Michael Foley selecting seven debutants and enlisting the services of clubmen across the country, particularly from the Shute Shield in Sydney – Australia’s premier club competition – the chance to put themselves in the shop window on a global stage was one that was grasped with glee by those involved.

Northern Suburbs boasted three of their own in the squad, with Chris Tuatara-Morrison and Corey Brown in the run-on side, and Ben Matwijow coming off the bench. And for the affable Matwijow, a standout performer at Shute Shield level, it was an experience he’ll never forget.

“If you could sum it up in one word I would say ‘surreal’,” the 23-year-old loose forward happily explained. “You sort of have to pinch yourself that you actually got to play against the Lions. To make your debut in front of 35,000 people playing against some of the greats in world rugby is an unbelievable feeling. When you’re out there playing it’s hard to appreciate it because you have a role to play, but when I sat down after the game it was pretty satisfying.”

Ben Matwijow_Force v Lions_2013_Photae

Matwijow revelled in the experience – Photo: Photae.com.au

Matwijow has sat patiently on the fringes at the Force since he was offered a spot in their wider training group towards the end of 2012. Having featured in a couple of pre-season trials, he’d been waiting for the chance to pull on the blue jersey in a meaningful fixture. So this was the perfect opportunity to advertise his wares in the hope of earning that elusive professional contract, and climbing the first rung on the ladder towards a career in the game.

“I just wanted go out there and bring some energy to the team and just try to make a difference,” he reflected. “Games like this are also a selection trial for contracts next year, so you really got a chance to show your capabilities and that you could be highly competitive at the next level.

“It’s something I’ve been working towards for years, so to finally achieve it was great. But it makes you want to play a hell of a lot more of it. You watch and train with guys who are continually working to become better players and evolve their games by even the slightest amount. It’s a cliché but at that level, it’s the one percenters that make a difference.”

He admits that the selection controversy surrounding the game served as a massive motivational tool for the team that took the field. They weren’t about to cow-tow down to anyone.

“I think we all went out there with a point to prove. We are all part of the same squad, whether you’re the first bloke or the fortieth, and the group has a real feeling that whoever it is can do the job for the team.

“We wanted to play positive rugby with the mentality that we had nothing to lose, but at the same time stick to the structures. I don’t think the possibility of a cricket score ever came into our minds. I felt as though we were extremely competitive during stages of that game and could have come away with more points than we did.”

Despite the eventual scoreline, it’s fair to say that the Force did cause the Lions a few problems, bossing the possession and territory stats either side of half-time and finding a weakness in their defence close to the ruck to cross twice in similar circumstances. Having featured in one game and watched the other two on Australian soil from afar, Matwijow certainly feels that they are beatable.

“I think it’s been shown through their three games so far that areas of the game we thought they would come over and absolutely dominate, ie the scrum and lineout – they haven’t,” he observed. “Teams have shown that with persistent work on the edges of the ruck you can make metres when you keep the tempo high.”

Lewie Catt_Combined Country v British Lions_2013

Local favourite Lewie Catt wraps up Ian Evans in Combined Country’s loss to the Lions last Tuesday

In Newcastle on Tuesday night, it was the turn of the boys from the bush. New South Wales and Queensland’s finest country rugby players combined to face the might of the Lions, and despite a collective chasm of quality and experience, they put up a spirited resistance in front of 20,000 at Hunter Stadium.

It ended, as many had predicted, in a 64-0 rout. But the desire and application shown by a team made up for the most part of amateurs alongside a sprinkling of Super Rugby and club rugby talent, was a testament to how much it meant to each and every one of them to be out there.

It certainly showed on the beaming face of centre and proud Novocastrian Lewie Catt, who rolled up to the post-match press conference donning the prized shirt of his opposite number, one Brian O’Driscoll.

Tim Davidson_Combined Country v British Lions_2013

Tim Davidson under pressure from Jamie Heaslip

“The souvenir is good but the experience is better, it was great,” purred Catt, an electrical engineer by day. “There were a couple of times there when it was just rabbits in a headlight. But as we went into the game and came out at half-time, we just stuck it to them like country boys.”

Perhaps no-one encapsulated the ethos and spirit of the occasion better and more eloquently than Combined Country’s captain, Tim Davidson. “This fixture is so important, not only to country rugby but also to the wider community in Australia,” said the legendary Sydney University backrower. “For the buy-in and for the lengths that the game goes to in order to reach those areas, it is hugely important.

“I really hope that this is a full-time fixture in the years to come, because not only does it give guys from the bush an opportunity to play against an outstanding touring side, but all the history that goes with it is just fantastic. It’s something that Lewie and myself and the guys that have come together in such a short period will remember for the rest of our lives, and in years to come we’ll all get together and talk about how fantastic this opportunity was, and how much we enjoyed it. And I think that’s really what rugby’s all about.”

Hear, hear.

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Original version published by Rugby News on June 13th, 2013

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