BACK WHERE IT ALL BEGAN Connacht’s Matthew Burke is pictured at the Ballinrobe RFC dressing-rooms in The Green last week. Pic: Ray Ryan
Matthew Burke from Ballinrobe is living his best life with Connacht
Name: Matthew Burke
Position: Loosehead prop
Height: 5’ 10”
Last book he read: ‘The Silk Roads: A New History of the World’ by Peter Frankopan
Did you know? Matthew is a former Irish Schoolboys boxing champion.
IT was the early hours of last Tuesday morning when the Connacht rugby squad arrived back in Galway from their day-trip to Wales.
A five point defeat to the Scarlets (after letting a half-time lead of 21 points slip) in the final PRO14 game of the season meant that the return flight was a quiet one.
Matthew Burke had more time to think on the drive home from Galway to Ballinrobe.
The 24 year-old prop forward had come off the bench in the last quarter, just a week after hearing that his senior contract had been renewed with his home province.
It was the latest milestone achievement in his stellar rise through the Connacht ranks.
A few days later, Matthew Burke sat down with The Mayo News to talk about his journey from learning the ropes with Ballinrobe RFC to representing Ireland at Under-18 level to earning a second pro’ contract at the Sportsgrounds.
The rain was pouring down outside as he sat in the changing-rooms at The Green in Ballinrobe and reflected on where he has come from and where he wants to go.
MF: How would you tell somebody who didn’t know you how you went from being a regular teenager in Ballinrobe to playing professionally for Connacht?
MB: I would say that it was very much a yearly process. . .
I was playing a mixture of sports up until when I was 18, but every year I was going for trials with Connacht, I was always doing fairly well, and we’d play a few inter-pro matches.
Then I was called into the Irish Under-18 set-up and that was where it kicked off for me.
Nigel Carolan, who is one of our coaches with Connacht at the moment, was the Academy Manager at the time. He got on to me and said, ‘We’d like to bring you into the Academy’.
It kind of just went from there.
I couldn’t believe I’d got called into the Irish set-up, then the Connacht Academy was like the stepping stone to the professional level. I knew that if I could keep working, keep improving, keep showing them my quality, then I could get in there.
So off the back of that, I got offered a professional contract.
MF: What was it like being a Ballinrobe RFC player called up to the Ireland Under-18s?
MB: Even with Connacht, Ballinrobe is one of the smaller clubs, it’s a smaller town.
It’s not like Sligo or Athlone or Galway, those lads had played a lot more club rugby than I had. So I felt like a bit of an outsider nearly.
I’m quite an introverted guy so that probably made it [joining up with Ireland] a bit tougher. When you’re going up from Connacht you’re always a smaller group, it’s usually dominated from Munster and Leinster, with some from Ulster and fewer from Connacht.
I felt like a bit of an imposter nearly, thinking, ‘All of these guys are going to these big rugby schools’.
MF: You need a lot of self-belief to play top-level sport don’t you?
MB: Yeah, you do. And you have to believe that you wouldn’t be there unless you were good enough. And believe that you deserve to be there every bit as much as guys who you would perceive to be from bigger clubs or to be better players.
MF: You got your first professional contract with Connacht in 2019. What was it like to go from the Academy into the senior set-up?
MB: After I’d got the contract, it wasn’t as daunting.
I was in my second year at the Academy when I first got brought into the pro set-up, I went over to France, and got my first professional game-time in one of the warm-up games.
Then I made my debut in the Challenge Cup against Sale, that was a big moment.
When I got brought in, I was thinking, ‘How am I going to manage at this level?’ Because I hadn’t been exposed to it. Then I started to build a bit of confidence, training was going well, I got ten minutes game-time in my first appearance and I did okay.
They were happy with me.
I got multiple appearances then that season and it just went from there.
Even when you’re in the Academy you’re still mixing with the likes of Jack Carty or Bundee Aki, or whoever else, and you do feel a bit in awe sometimes. But you get to know them as people and it feels more normal.
Once I’d played, and got a bit of confidence and self-belief, and got the contract, actually becoming a professional player wasn’t quite as daunting.
MF: Your contract was renewed a few weeks ago. What was it like waiting for the news?
MB: It’s a little bit nerve-racking, a little bit tense, especially this year because contracts were delayed getting announced with the Covid situation.
Game-time has been a more limited due to the Covid situation as well so you haven’t had as many opportunities to impress, put your hand up, and say, ‘I deserve to be there’.
So I was nervous about it. I probably never really thought about the reality that, ‘this could be it’.
It was just a relief to get the contract news. I could relax and say, ‘Right, I’m just going to enjoy my rugby now. I’m going to be here next year and I don’t need to worry about that aspect of it’.
MF: How big of an aspect in your rugby career is your family? In terms of the support you get from them and the pride they get from seeing you play for Connacht?
MB: It’s massive. My dad has always been big into rugby but, it’s funny, my mother probably wasn’t as big into it as she is now. Over the years she’s become more and more invested.
My granny lives down in Enniscorthy [Co Wexford] and she’s watching every game.
They want to see me out there, playing well, and winning.
They’re so proud of me, and that’s another reason to play, perform and win.
It’s something that gives you energy.
MF: How would you compare and contrast professional and amateur rugby?
MB: I always think that the difference between performance sometimes isn’t as big as people would think. Probably the biggest similarities are things like the dressing-room; lads getting slagged and the cultures we have, doing the initiations, having the craic, singing a song or whatever it is.
MF: What was your initiation song?
MB: It was ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ by Bill Withers.
MF: What’s the biggest difference between amateur and professional rugby?
MB: Probably something like, if you’re playing a junior match or a senior match, you might do something that people think is a bit loose.
Like, you might have forwards kicking the ball or people throwing offloads that aren’t on, stuff like that.
It does happen in professional rugby, but if things like that happen and they don’t come off then you’re going to get a talking to from the coaches.
Probably one of the biggest things is work-rate too, especially at Connacht, we really focus on the work-rate. We call it your ‘bounce’, how hard you’re working after you get tackled or after you get off the ground. How hard you work to get back into your position in defence or attack.
You’d have a lot more leeway at club level with that, guys might be walking around, getting off the ground slowly. . Whereas with us, you won’t get away with that, you’ll usually get punished, whether it’s by a talking to from the coaches or another player or on the pitch.
MF: Could you try and put into words just how intense playing in your position is?
MB: It’s a battleground. You’re constantly being asked questions, mentally and physically, and you can’t really switch off at any stage. Even in the moments when the ball is out of play, and fans stop watching for a second, as players we’re always playing until the whistle goes.
That’s the mentality you try to have. You’re always trying to work, always trying to be ready for the next thing that comes along.
MF: Did that come easy to you?
MB: Aspects of it. But it’s tough when you’re out there and you’re gassed, you can’t breathe, your limbs feel like they’re just lead. You get those moments and even the hardest worker in the room is going to have to mentally push themselves in that moment.
The thing is to try and make it a habit in training, always push yourself so then it becomes second nature. Because the hardest aspect of it is the mental thing because you’re always trying to think of the next thing you have to do.
You’re always saying, ‘Next job, next job’. But at the same time you’re running, you’re moving around, you have to make a tackle, and you’re slowly getting more and more exhausted, more and more tired.
But you still have to be mindful of what it is you have to do.
MF: What motivates you? What is your greatest driver?
MB: I think where my ambition comes from is that I want to be the best.
In some things I can be a bit of a perfectionist. I’m competitive, I want to win, I want to be the best on the field, not just in my position. And I use that as fuel. If I’m making a tackle, I’m going forwards, I’m not going backwards. If I’m making a carry with the ball, I’m going forwards. If I’m in the scrum, I want to dominate the other guy.
MF: If we were to talk like this again in five years’ time, where would you like to be?
MB: I’d definitely like to have played for Ireland. I’ve dreamed of being out there playing for Connacht, but also I’ve dreamed so much of playing for Ireland down through the years.
Growing up, as the professional era has really come to the fore, and you’ve had all these legends like Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell, Ronan O‘Gara, I’ve grown up watching them.
And I’ve always wanted to be out there where they were.
I want to push on, I want to play internationally, I want to be number one for Connacht.
MF: And you feel they are realistic expectations?
MB: Sometimes you think, ‘I’m so far away, these guys are so beyond me’. But then, at the same time, you think, ‘I’ve gone out and played against these guys. I’ve tackled them, I’ve been tackled by them. I’m not that far away’.
All it would take is a good performance here, an injury there, and suddenly I jump up in the rankings. And you might get a call from Andy Farrell or whoever is there, and they ask you to come in. It’s such a fine line.
It’s a given that you’d want to be representing your province as the first-choice and doing well in that role before you can be expecting a call from the Irish team.
MF: In terms of getting into that Connacht number one jersey, do you feel you’re ahead of schedule or behind schedule?
MB: I’m probably a little bit behind, and there’s reasons for that. Obviously the Covid situation has made it more difficult and I also had a bad injury last season, when I tore my hamstring.
So I was coming into this season off the back of that and it took me a bit of time to get back up to where I was. But I feel I’m at peak now in terms of where I’d been physically, in terms of my performance. I’m know I’m not that far away.
In terms of the opportunities I’ve actually had, the games I’ve played, and my standing in the ranks I’m not where I’d like to be. But I know that I can get there very quickly.
MF: Connacht have a huge European Challenge Cup game in England against Leicester Tigers next Saturday evening. Is it important for your development that you get game-time in a match like that?
MB: I’m very keen to play because my opportunities have been limited. A game like that is an important one so part of you wants to be involved because you want to say to the coaches, ‘It doesn’t matter what the game is, you can trust me to be at my best and put in a performance’.
Matthew Burke on…
The job of a loosehead prop
“As a forward in general, and especially as a front row prop, you’re in the engine-room, throwing the coal into the furnace. You’re getting physical, messy and dirty.
So the physical moments, the tackle, the carry, the contact areas, hitting rucks, the scrum, the line-out, the maul, they’re all the bread and butter for you, the physical moments and impacts. They’re where you’re looking to be involved as much as possible.
You want to help put your team on the front-foot and that allows the playmakers to put their plan in place.”
His specific job in the scrum
“I suppose you could say, ‘Push as hard as possible and go forward’.
As a front row, you’re very much like a nail or an anvil, and the hammer is striking you. The hammer being the five men behind you, the second rows and the back-row.
The three guys in the front-row are the three who are either criticised or applauded, but you can’t do it without the five other men. Your job is to be like a solid block, rigid, and going straight forward.”
Scoring his first Connacht try
“I’d love to get a try. I’ve thought about what I’d do if I scored a try, and I think I’d just touch the ball down gently and walk off! There wouldn’t be much of a fanfare about it.”