Big Ben ready to strike for the Eagles
Photo: John Young Photography
“I’m absolutely loving it – it’s fantastic!” beams NSW Country Eagles loose forward Ben Matwijow, when asked if he is enjoying his time in the inaugural NRC. A glowing appraisal indeed but perhaps an unsurprising validation given his experiences of the competition thus far.
One of a host of emerging young talent vying for a shot at the big time, Matwijow took a punt when he opted to join the Eagles instead of the North Harbour Rays, the natural pathway from his feeder club Northern Suburbs in the Shute Shield. Surrounded by an abundance of current Super Rugby talent in the shape of Kane Douglas, Stephen Hoiles, Mitch Chapman and Tala Gray, alongside former Super Rugby and French Top 14 veteran Cameron Treloar, Matwijow faced a sizeable battle in order to eke out some game time.
But battle he has, impressing the Eagles coaching team of Darren Coleman, Shannon Fraser and Mark Giacheri to the point where he has started seven of the Eagles’ eight regular season games, helping them to a hugely creditable second placed finish on the final ladder, and a home semi-final this evening against Brisbane City in Gosford.
When Rugby News caught up with him earlier this week, he readily admitted that his time on the field has vastly exceeded expectations.
“Early on I thought I’d be struggling to make the matchday 23, so to play as much as I have has been great,” says the affable 24-year-old. “There’s so many good, experienced players in this squad, I’ve just tried to take my opportunities as best I could when they came and it’s gone better than I could have hoped.”
Earning the right to play alongside players with higher honours, week-in, week-out, has given Matwijow a greater belief and confidence in his game, and only served to fuel his ambition to join some of his team mates at the next level.
“That was one real positive about coming to Country, you have to work for your opportunity to get into the team. But also, when you’re running around at training or running around in games, just listening to what those guys say or what those guys bring to the table, you can learn some of the things that got them to the next level,” he enthuses.
“Those little bits of your game that aren’t quite there yet can be improved upon from taking note and trying to implement what you’ve learned into your own game. For a player wanting to get to the next level, that’s been invaluable and great fun too, and those guys are always willing to put their hand up to help out and give you any advice they can. It’s been fantastic.”
But whilst having the input of old heads like Hoiles, Treloar and Matt Carraro has been an invaluable tool towards shaping such a competitive side from scratch, one of Country’s successes appears to have been their ability to integrate that experience and knowledge, with the exuberance and thirst for learning shown by the younger members of the squad. Everyone it seems, has had their chance to help shape the culture, character and style of the Eagles.
“You know the Super guys are always going to take the lead and talk us through anything we’ve got to do, but I think the coaches have also made sure that there’s a contribution from everyone, and we’re always talking,” Matwijow explains.
“Every training session we’re looking to get better, looking to take things out of it, work harder and improve, and we’ve been really enthusiastic about where we can get to in this competition if we keep showing that spirit and keep rocking up each week and having a real go,” he continues. “We’ve just taken it one week at a time and really focused on that one game every weekend, and on putting out a brand of rugby that Country can be proud of.”
Therein lies perhaps another key to the Eagles’ fledgling success. The fostering of an identity that sets out to reflect the people from the rural areas of the state that they represent – and an approach to the game of rugby that does them justice. Make no mistake, the Country badge on their jersey is a badge of honour, and a totem that all and sundry – even those few joining the brigade from the big city – have bought into in a big way. Originally from Nelson Bay on the Central Coast, Matwijow speaks with glowing pride about the Country ethos.
“We’ve got a few guys that are Sydney based but we’ve all bought into the country spirit and we’ve just tried to put out performances for Country that people can be proud of,” he says. “Being a country boy myself, I knew just how important it was playing for Country and when the opportunity came to play for them, that was a really big thing for me, being able to give back to the place that gave me an opportunity in the game in the first place. We just want to put out a brand of footy that people in the country can say ‘Yeah, we’re behind them, they’re representing us.’”
Despite initial interest from the Rays, the fact that a few of his Norths team mates were already on board, and that his chances of game time before a ball was kicked were possibly more favourable, Matwijow’s roots dictated that there was only ever going to be one destination when head coach Darren Coleman sounded him out for his side.
“There was an opportunity there to play for the Rays from the start, but you’ve always got to weigh up where you think you’ll get the best opportunities and I was always leaning towards Country,” he says. “DC (Darren Coleman) was very up front from the start that he wanted me to be involved. I come from the Country and got my first opportunity to come down to Sydney through country rugby, and I felt that maybe it was destiny that my next opportunity might just come from playing for Country again, so I jumped at the chance.”
Hailed by team mates, coaches and pundits alike as one of the players most likely to make the jump from clubland to the professional arena over the last couple of seasons, Matwijow’s chances to shine in the big time have been frustratingly sparse. A couple of stints in the Western Force Wider Training Squad culminated in the highlight of his career so far, a run off the bench for the Force against the British & Irish Lions – O’Driscoll, et al – in the tourists’ opening match of their Australian tour last year. But while the rumour mill merely reinforces the fact that he’s being looked at, the holy grail of a professional contract still eludes him.
“I think he’s definitely ready for Super Rugby,” affirms Eagles team mate and New South Wales Waratah, Mitchell Chapman, when we put the question to him. “I hadn’t seen him play before this competition and he’s really impressed everyone. He’s physically really tough and his skill set is fantastic. He’s good at the lineout and at scrumtime, and he’s a good ball carrier, so I think it will only be a matter of time before he gets an opportunity.”
Another fine performance against the highly fancied Brisbane City tonight would do his cause no harm at all. Live on Fox Sports 2 at 7.30pm, he has the perfect platform from which to advertise his wares. But faced with one of only two sides to have brought the Eagles back to earth in the NRC – the other being Minor Premiers and title favourites, Melbourne Rising – the hosts are presented with a significant challenge.
Beaten 36-24 by City in Lismore back in round four, the Eagles feel they can take plenty from that match into tonight’s encounter. They’re feeling confident.
“We were really flat that day for some reason, we lacked physicality but we learned a lot about them and how best to counteract some of their threats,” says Matwijow. “If we can bring that physicality and enthusiasm to the game, I think we’ll go well. They’ve got a potent and powerful backline and if we can stop some of their front-foot ball and stop their backs from getting a roll on, we’ll go alright.”
Six wins from their eight games, five home games in five different locations around New South Wales – Sydney, Lismore, Orange, Dubbo and now Gosford – and the bonus of Friday night finals football with a chance to reach the big dance. Win or lose, you get the feeling this has been one heck of a ride for Matwijow and his fellow Eagles.
“We’ve just bonded well as a group and really bought into playing together,” he reflects. “We’ve played with some really good enthusiasm and I think we’ve been smart as well in knowing that we didn’t want to play beyond our means early on, and just made sure our structures and basics were there to create opportunities.
“We thought that if we performed to our best that a top two finish wasn’t beyond us. We’ve probably exceeded a lot of people’s expectations but we’re here now, hopefully we can push on and take it another week into the Grand Final.”
Original version published by Rugby News on October 24th, 2014