Alby Mathewson keen to finish what he started at Munster

Alby Mathewson was brought to Munster to lend a hand and the former All Black would dearly love to see the job through to what he hopes will be a not-so-bitter end.

Such is the life of a professional rugby player who has been travelling Europe from one short-term contract to the next, since the Western Force lost its Super Rugby franchise at the end of the 2017 season.

With his family still based in Perth, the New Zealand scrum-half, 33, has seen action with Bristol, Toulon and now Munster, where he was brought in as cover for the injured Conor Murray and is now forging a successful tandem with the Ireland star.

Roles were reversed last Saturday with Mathewson wearing nine at Connacht, Murray replacing him on 51 minutes to close out the 31-24 PRO 14 win. Tonight will see Murray start against Gloucester, with Mathewson primed to enter off the bench.

It is the first of two season-defining European games and Mathewson will play his part knowing he may not be around for the knockout stages, having had his initial IRFU three-month contract signed on his arrival in September extended only to the end of March.

Unsurprisingly, the livewire half-back wants the opportunity to finish what he started.

“I’ve been here since the start of the season and I’d like to finish with the team because I started with this team,” Mathewson said.

“I guess I just have to wait and see about that. It’s an IRFU decision but it would be tough leaving a team at the end of March, with a month, two months left, it would just be tough.

It would be weird not to finish the season. Even if we, for example, were bottom of the table, I’d still like to finish but I’d understand more if I wasn’t able to but March it is at the moment so just enjoy it, keep chipping away.

Signed in September when Munster learned they would have to wait for Murray to recover from a neck injury, Mathewson has proven a good fit, providing a wealth of experience and class. Since Murray’s return he has been an ideal foil for the Ireland star, as well as sharing his rugby intellect with any teammate who cares to pick his brain.

In return, the well-travelled player, who cut his teeth on home soil with the Hurricanes and Blues before making four Test appearances for the All Blacks, is happy to have forged a strong working relationship with Murray, with whom he now dovetails seamlessly.

“He’s world-class, one of the best, if not the best nine in the world,” he said. “We get on pretty well so it’s good just working with him. We’re both similar in like how we’re really hard on ourselves in terms of execution. We expect everything to be perfect and we’re really hard on ourselves.

“It’s good, we push each other but I understand it’s his team. I came in as cover until he came back and I just do what I can to help out. He’s the same with me. We always ask each other, ‘is there anything you need?’ in terms of the training week. You swap in and out at training and I say to him, if he’s starting, ‘don’t feel obliged to change with me, you do what you need to do to get yourself right’.

“He might want to stay in for all the reps and that’s fine with me. I can watch training and just get mental reps and still be confident enough to go and play. Some guys are different, they actually need to run the reps but I feel confident I can watch training, do all my homework and analysis and understand my role either way.

“But whatever Conor needs, whatever his preparation is, it’s no bother to me. We do swap in and out but I said to him, for example, this week is a short week, ‘do what you need to do to be ready’. So we have a good working relationship, a good off-the-field relationship.”

The partnership works for Munster also, with Mathewson adding: “I understand it, he’s been out for a long time, he needs game-time, not only for Munster but for Ireland and the Six Nations and the World Cup, he’s obviously really important and as I said to Johann (van Graan), whatever I can do to help.

“I played until he was fit again and whatever I can do to help out and help the team, that’s why I’m here, to help out wherever I can, with whatever I can.”

Given the environments Mathewson has played in, he clearly has a lot to offer in terms of mentoring.

“It hasn’t been asked of me but I’ve sort of taken it on a wee bit. For example, me and James Hart do a lot extra skill work and now JJ (Hanrahan) and Sammy Arnold come and join our skill sessions just to keep up their skill-sets.

I’m not a midfielder but I’ve been around and picked up enough ideas for pretty much every position on the field and with Sammy, he’s working on some catch-pass stuff so I watch him catch-pass and give him some feedback, things to work on, the same with JJ as well.

“JJ always comes and picks my brain. I think he’s like ‘okay, this guy is 33, still playing at a high level, what can I take away from him’. I think nowadays, younger guys can think they know it all and it’s good when they come and ask for feedback.”

Again, Mathewson speaks from hard-earned experience. Ask him whose brains he picked and the response is a who’s who of New Zealand rugby.

“Oh, my first year with the Hurricanes, I got to play with Jerry Collins, Tana Umaga, Ma’a Nonu, Jimmy Gopperth, Piri Weepu, Andrew Hore, Rodney So’oialo, Chris Masoe, Hose Gear, Shannon Paku… I was lucky. Then at the Blues, Kaino, Mealamu, Ali Williams, Tony Woodcock, John Afoa, Rudi Wolf, Rene Ranger, Benson Stanley, Luke McAllister, just everyone, all the players and we had some really good coaches as well.

“We’re quite big on giving feedback back home, like, ‘always ask a question’, or go to coaches ‘what can I do better here?’ Guys are always helping each other. We compete, maybe for the same position, but we give each other feedback all the time.

So I was around a lot of those guys, watched how they did things, asked questions and learned. I’ve always wanted to get as much knowledge as I can, ask questions.

“I’ve got books and books from every team I’ve been in, notes from 10 years ago, just of things you pick up. I’ve played professionally since I was 18, it’s almost all I’ve known and being a nine you’ve got to know the game pretty much inside out. It’s something I enjoy though, and so I try and help guys out with little things here and there.”

If there is any sense, Mathewson will get his chance to continue sharing that rugby brain with Munster players beyond March.


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