Rugby League World journalist and Leeds Rhinos star Jamie Jones-Buchanan finds out how one of the NRL’s favourite sons is coping with life in England – and succeeding a certain Sam Tomkins…
This month I had the great pleasure of meeting one of the NRL’s most popular and exciting stars over the last decade, Matty “Mango” Bowen. The man charged with filling the boots of Wigan’s hometown superstar Sam Tomkins.
Bowen has been a real showman in the NRL but interestingly didn’t even play team Rugby League until he was 12 years old. I know League is known for being a late development sport, but players who start so late don’t usually have the skills that Bowen has – they usually end in the back row like me. I suspect it was the hours of backyard rugby with his cousins and his time playing touch football that helped him gain the agility of Dash from the “Incredibles”.
I see similar effects with touch rugby complimenting the tackling skills of young kids, and very much hope that the new “Primary Rugby League” format will have a positive impact on the handling skills of under-8s playing small-sided games.
Bowen is an absolute dazzler of a performer. You don’t have to search YouTube long to find some of the world class tries among the 127 he scored for North Queensland, and is an exciting player to have in our competition.
Matt brought his wife and two children to the Costa opposite the Wigan ground where we met, and his team player, family reputation was clear to see. I can relate to Matt’s journey, being a one club man and very much involved with his local community, and once his playing days are finished I suspect he will be a real facilitator in bringing more indigenous talent to fruition.
Joel Moon had told me that his nickname was Mango but had no idea why, so thought that might be a good place to start.
“It came from Origin camp,” Matt responded. “Gordon Tallis started calling me it because back home there’s a ‘Bowen Mango’ in Bowen, Queensland, and the name just stuck.
“I didn’t play Rugby League until I was 12 at high school, because where I am from they never had a team sport because it was a little Aboriginal community. The nearest place for team sports was four hours drive in Cairns so it wasn’t until high school I had a chance to play. I would watch my brothers play at school too.
“Before then I would just play in the backyard with my brothers and kick a football around.
“I was also into athletics when I was younger – short sprints over 100 and 200 metres. I played a lot of touch too, – I had those two sports and then Rugby League came. I made a lot of rep’ teams and played for Australia at touch when I was 15-17 years old.
“I was juggling those two with Rugby League then one of my brothers said I would have to pick one so I chose League. I have four brothers, I’m the youngest, and one sister who is the eldest. I rarely saw my brothers play because I was only young – the year I went to high school my brother wash finishing school – but I got to see him play then and he was pretty good. He was unlucky not to play for the Cowboys I think. I loved seeing him play and fell in love with the game; I wanted to follow in their footsteps
“I was a Roosters supporter as a kid actually, I loved watching Brad Fittler and Adrian Lam play because I was a five-eighth growing up – I didn’t start playing fullback until first grade.
“We played a lot of touch footy in the backyard with our cousins. I had the hand-eye coordination, I just loved and enjoyed playing, having fun with my mates and cousins. My cousin Brenton Bowen played for the Cowboys and went on to play for the Gold Coast. He’s a year younger so we played a lot together as juniors and growing up at the Cowboys.”
I’m not finished yet but being a one club man is a nice thing to have at the end of a career, particularly in a competition like the NRL where players move clubs regularly. It’s special being a part of a club for so long because it stops being a place of work and becomes a home.
Instead of having colleagues you have a family. So it can’t be easy leaving after such a long career, particularly when your offered other work opportunities within the club like Matt was at the Cowboys. But after being told there wouldn’t be a squad place for him in 2014, Matt decided he wasn’t done playing and decided to look elsewhere. At just 32 I don’t blame him.
“It was hard leaving the Cowboys, I had always been a one club player,” he admitted. “I got signed when I was 15 at the end of 1999, I left the school and went to go train first grade, then started playing in 2001.
“It was hard for me to leave, I have seen a lot of players come and go and I guess it was my turn to leave. They gave me an opportunity to work there this year but I told them I wasn’t done playing and that I wanted to pursue elsewhere and luckily Wigan gave me an opportunity to come here.
“I still follow the boys back home and love the boys and staff back there – I miss a lot of the boys; Jonno (Thurston), Ray Thompson, guys like that. We were a tight bunch of boys back at the Cowboys. I miss hanging out with those boys, but saying that we have a good group over here now and want to make the most of it while I’m here. I am really happy and enjoying the Super League.”
I would concede that round by round the NRL is a more intense competition than Super League, and that might be the reason why once you reach your early 30s you bang into a perceived age ceiling over there. With smarter treatments and physiological management of players in the Super League, players are playing better for longer, but that doesn’t seem to be a trend in the NRL.
“I think they do have that perception about age, but it depends how boys are going too. If I wasn’t going to play there I was going elsewhere. It was hard to make the decision to come here and bring my family, but they’re here now enjoying it and as long as they are then I will.”
Matt was a genuine fans favorite up at the Cowboys and a real inspiration, particularly for the indigenous population in the north. It was suggested that had he stayed at the Cowboys in another role, that role my have been as an indigenous ambassador. Some of the best players in the NRL have an Aboriginal background – Matty’s long time teammate Jonathan Thurston being one of them.
Growing up as a naive teenager I often laughed at some of the media outbursts from another indigenous player, Anthony “The Man” Mundine – as he then called himself. Mundine made claims of institutional racism in the NRL due to the lack of international opportunities he had; despite being purportedly the highest paid player over there.
The Indigenous All Stars versus the NRL All Stars is a fantastic concept that was unfortunately put back this year due to the Nines tournament. I wondered if the All Star games were a big attraction to the Aboriginal people, and if Matty would be keen to use his status to help the indigenous people overcome any barriers that might be in front of them once the curtains come down on his playing career
“I think so mate – I love helping the indigenous community. There is a whole lot of different areas up in the Gulf and up in the Cape, and there are lots of Aboriginal communities up there. You know there is a lot of kids that love the Cowboys, love the Broncos, and I really like the sort of things that helps the kids. Not just the young boys, but the girls too playing netball, whatever.
“But it is hard mate. I think a lot of the indigenous kids they are really family orientated and can’t really just take one person out of the community and take them six or seven hours back to Townsville and ask them to get into club training living away from their family. It’s a bit hard so I just want to bridge that gap in the road, bringing them in.
“My partner and I have talked about getting a house built somewhere. Then you can get them down and make them feel at home, because a lot of the time the kids just don’t want to move away from their family. When they do they only last about two or three weeks then want to go back home.
“I just want to help them and if I get the chance to help them after footy I would be more than happy to. Yes there is a role for me at the Cowboys similar to doing those kind of things and junior development, but I just want to concentrate on playing at the moment and then when that time comes I’m sure I will be more than willing to help wherever I can.”
Then I asked him about the notion of racism in the NRL.
“I think views are changing now in the NRL – it’s slowly stamping out the racism but you get a few comments now and again towards players. We have a lot of indigenous kids now playing the game back home. I think slowly but surely it will be out of the game. You still get every now and then that odd fan saying something but it’s come a long way.
“They didn’t want to play the indigenous game this year because of the boys coming back from the World Cup. They didn’t want them coming back from the road, having two weeks of training then trying to play in the game. They have put that on the back burner for next year and then they started the Nines.
“The Nines was a good concept but I’m sure that the indigenous game will be back next year. It’s always a good concept – there are always a lot of indigenous fans ready to support their team and love going to those games. I can’t wait for it to come back next year.”
It became obvious talking to Matt that getting family orientated, indigenous people out of the country and into the city is a hard task. He’s a big boy now with his own family but still, the upheaval of moving from a home town like Townsville in the constant sun to a wet, pie-laden town like Wigan on the other side of the world must have been a shock. The saving grace may have been the softer grounds, which if he’s anything like me would have been music to the ears where knee joints are concerned.
One of Matt’s first matches was the World Club Challenge against Sydney Roosters in Australia.
“It was a bit hard. But if we played the Roosters again mid-season I’m sure we will be going a lot better. Coming here to play one game against Huddersfield and then going back into Oz to play the Roosters was a bit tough. But we got a lot out of that, a lot of young kids in Wigan that got experience out of that. If that happens again I’m sure we will be a lot better for it.”
Then, of course, there has been the change in climate that he’s had to deal with.
“Obviously I didn’t like the cold! Coming from Townsville – at the Cowboys we train early mornings and late afternoons to get away from the heat. The heat is around 27 up to 35 degrees sometimes. It was one of the hardest decisions I had to make, to train in this weather. But, when I came over I started to enjoy the weather, I think.
“It’s been good. I miss the boys from the club back at the Cowboys. But coming here making new friends like Blake Green from Oz helped settled us in a bit more and having Eddie Pettybourne here helped too.
“It would have been hard coming by myself into a new club but Eddie has been a big help to me. When we first moved over our families didn’t come over until after the Sydney game, so we were here the best part of two months on our own and it was a bit hard but got the family here now.
“They seem to be enjoying it and if they are happy then I’m happy. Everyone keeps talking about the pies but haven’t tried a pie yet. But we’ve been driving around different places and having coffee in different places. We’ve been to the Trafford Centre a lot. It’s been good mate, its something different and I’m really enjoying it.”
When you move to a big club like Wigan, you’re going there to win trophies and although he went close with the Cowboys that is something Matt has yet to do. With a quarter of the season gone I thought he would have tasted enough of our Super League to give us a subjective rating of our comp’ compared to his decade’s worth of NRL.
“I only got the chance to play in the NRL Grand Final in ‘05. We fell short a couple of times in the Grand Final, but Wigan won the double last year and coming into pre-season you wouldn’t have thought they did that last year. They train hard, boys are real great, coach was unbelievable I think.
“Players like Lockers (Sean O’Loughlin) and Micky (McIlorum) – they’re goods blokes who have really embraced me and Eddie Pettybourne coming into the club. They are pretty much a younger squad as well so I really enjoy my time here and hopefully we can win more games and get into the play-offs.
“I think my first game against Huddersfield I got shocked about the speed of the game – I wasn’t expecting that. But I have respect for all the top teams like you guys, Huddersfield and Warrington. Back at home it’s a week-in, week-out constant grind so you have to be up for a game back there. Some games you can rest the players and try different things, but skill wise and physical wise I think it’s similar to the NRL.
“It’s just the different grounds, the soft grounds but it’s been good mate. The first couple of days a week or two training on the soft ground, my back and stuff was tightening up, but now I’m feeling good. Back home I used to train and my knees used to blow up and now it doesn’t, so I think the soft ground helps. I’m enjoying my time here and enjoying the footy so it’s been good.”
Big boots, different shoes
Matty has broken records in the best competition in the world and is long time friends with some of its best players, so I wondered if that human resource went a long way toward helping the young lads and adding to Wigan’s leadership group.
“Yes and no,” he responded. “I think you obviously have a leadership team here at Wigan but I’m just here to enjoy footy and help the younger guys alone the way. Guys like Joe Burgess and Ryan Hampshire; I’m just here to give them a few tips. I’m still learning as I’m going along, even still today, so I’m open to views from different players and the coaching staff. I take a lot of stuff on board.
“Young Joe Burgess has played well, particularly in the World Club Challenge. He’s been playing well the last few games. He has a big future ahead of him – if he keeps his head in the right spot and keeps playing well I’m sure he will go a long way.”
There’s no doubt that Matty Bowen is a legend in the NRL. If you’ve not watched much of the Australian competition then you might not realise how much he’s loved by the fans, and how high calibre a player he is. There are not many like him and has some world class skills are unique to himself.
He is what he is, but that doesn’t stop him being the subject of constant comparisons now that he has the shirt formerly worn by Sam Tomkins. The two probably passed mid-air over Hong Kong traveling to their new destinations in the off-season. I’m not sure if they have even ever met but I’m sure Matty would know everything about him given that Sam is frustratingly included with him in nearly every sentence Matt appears in.
I wanted to know if he gets fed up with being asked if he can fill the boots of someone who wears a completely different kind of shoe. More than that, Wigan have an exciting bunch of young players coming through in the form of Burgess, Thornley and Hampshire, who must relish the opportunity to feed from the wealth of experience someone like Matty Bowen brings.
“If you think about the comparisons all the time then you can get caught up in it, but I just told them from the start that I’m here to do what I did best in the NRL. Obviously Sam is going to test that too when he goes over there. I just told them that he can’t be me and I can’t be him.
“He is going to be targeted a lot, coming from a good place last year. He’s going to be targeted but saying that he has to be up for a game week-in, week-out. With the kind of player he is, I’m sure he will prove a lot of critics wrong and he can stand up to NRL footy, and I’m hoping he will go great. Give him a couple more games and he will get a bit of confidence on how they play.
“We obviously bring different things to the table, different things to the paddock, but whatever Sam did last year was last year, and I’m here to do a job this year.
“If I can support the team, give credit back to the staff that gave me an opportunity to play here, and hopefully I can pay them back by playing some good footy this year. I can’t wait to play some good footy week-in, week-out and see what happens.”