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'I read that and thought, f***, if a farmer from Ballymena can do that then I can'

By Liam Heagney

Trending on RugbyPass

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Next Saturday will be quite the treat, a Lions match that isn’t taking place in the home of one of the three southern hemisphere powerhouses. New Zealand, South Africa and Australia are the countries where the famed tourists usually ply their trade every four years, yet there are some romantic anomalies to that rich touring tradition. Next weekend at Murrayfield will be the first-ever fixture versus Japan, for instance, a novelty adding to the history of one-off matches such as the little-remembered 1989 Lions win over France in Paris which featured ex-Ireland skipper Phillip Matthews.

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The Lions are a very different entity these days, their every move covered by wall-to-wall media, but the world was very different 32 years ago. No social media, no live TV footage in the UK of a midweek Parisian adventure that took place ten-and-a-half weeks after the Test series versus the Wallabies had been won in Australia.

That’s an achievement Matthews never tuned into. He’d been tipped as a potential captain for the tour Down Under, never mind starting in the back row, but he wound up getting neither accolade as he was omitted from the squad that was skippered by Finlay Calder and had a star blindside in Mike Teague.

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It’s a painful memory that Matthews gets reminded of every four years when the latest Lions squad gets selected. “I found out through one of the Lions selectors calling somebody who then called me to give me a heads-up because the expectation was I was a nailed-on choice and potentially a captain and then not going at all, everybody knew it was going to be a bit of a shock,” he explained to RugbyPass.

“I got a call and it was probably the most disappointing call ever. I’d a dream since I was 12 or 13 and the Lions means so much. When you see how disappointed the likes of (2021 omission) James Ryan must be now and how much it means, it means so much. You hear the ’89 guys or any tour coming back and talking about what it is like and you know it is such a big thing.

Matthews Lions

Phillip Matthews makes a tackle for the 1989 Lions versus France (Photo by Gerard Fouet/AFP via Getty Images)

“Yeah, I suppose I get counselling every four years when they announce it because it brings back the memories. There is a bit of that. I couldn’t watch the series itself, I couldn’t watch the ’89 Lions series and to this day I still can’t. If I didn’t think I seriously had a chance, if I was like an outsider, fine, I’d be watching it but because you’re thinking you are in with a really good chance and it doesn’t happen, it’s really tough to watch.”

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There was never an exact reason given to Matthews why he wasn’t selected by the Lions to tour Australia, but he has a theory. “No, and you wouldn’t look for a reason either. Like, (Warren) Gatland and his ’21 team have got a particular style in mind and a particular player in mind, and Roger Uttley, the ’89 forwards coach, had a particular style in mind and a particular type of player in mind. In fairness, Mike Teague had an outstanding tour. I think he was the man of the tour so it’s really difficult to argue against that and it’s just one of those things. It was just a style preference thing and it worked and you can’t really argue with that.”

It was July when the Lions signed off on their travels in Australia but their October reunion in Paris for a fixture that was part of the celebrations for the bicentennial of the French revolution didn’t float the boat of all the players who had celebrated in Sydney, an apathy that opened the door for Matthews to belatedly earn selection. He’s not sure what the exact reason was for the mixed uptake, whether umbrage was taken over the Lions being unprepared to splash out and cover the cost of bringing over the squad’s wives to Paris, but it left Matthews packing down in a revised back row that had Andy Robinson at openside and the late Dave Egerton at No8. He had a ball.

“It was one training session. I’m pretty sure it was only one. Did we meet in London and go to a show? I can only remember one significant session and that was in London and then we flew over. I don’t even know if it was on TV, I don’t even know if people at home were aware of it. These days in terms of the way media and sport works it would have been promoted so much on social media, but it was so low key. Hence you can’t find anything even on YouTube about it, with very few details reporting on it. No team picture. Nothing. Absolutely nothing,” he said about a game the Lions won 29-27, a rare treat for an Irish player in Paris as the Five Nations pattern at the time with Ireland was heavy defeat after heavy defeat.

“It was the first time I’d ever played in Paris on a side that was more than holding its own as opposed to going over there and getting duffed playing for Ireland. My abiding memory was of watching, getting up from a scrum or something, and there was this thing called the drift defence. In Ireland, forwards used to describe it as the excuse for backs not tackling, the idea that the backs would actually come up on the inside shoulder of the opposition and shuffle them across as opposed to making tackles. When I saw Jerry Guscott and Brendan Mullin working it because they have such pace, I was, ‘That’s what it’s all about. That is how it is supposed to work’.

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“It was just so good there, getting parity up front and in the backs getting dominance, to be honest. It was a real pleasure. The game went at 90 miles an hour. I barely touched the ball but that was the way it was in those days, but it was pretty vivid alright. It’s not the same as touring, nothing like it, but it was a consolation if you like because it came at a time when I didn’t think Lions selection was going to happen.

“I had played so much with the likes of the Barbarians and taken on tour sides and been relatively competitive, but it was just so good to be in Paris against the French team with guys that weren’t in any way intimidated by playing in France. Going to France you have got to match them in terms of aggression and intent and I just often felt a lot of Irish players went over to play in Paris in those days thinking, ‘We’re going to get the s*** kicked out of us here, we’re going to be on the backfoot’. Lo and behold that is what happened.

“So we never really matched them physically, which made the gap even bigger. We had no chance with the mindset that we brought there whereas when playing with the Lions in Paris that mindset was, ‘We are going to win this and we were expecting to win’. It was obviously more talented than an Irish team would have been.”

Matthews was just a couple of months shy of his 30th birthday at the time and his Lions appearance was the culmination of a 17-year-old dream ignited by Willie John McBride, the venerated hero of the 1974 Lions in South Africa. “He had the first rugby autobiography. There is probably still a copy of it at home in my parents. Whatever year that was out, I would have been in my early teens. I read that and I thought, ‘F***, if a farmer from Ballymena can do that then I can do that’.

“It’s a bit like if you can’t see it you can’t be it and the folklore of the Lions, him leading the Lions, watching those great Welsh sides of the 70s who were really inspirational and a bit of encouragement from a coach and getting on Ulster schools, three years on Ulster schools thinking now I might be able to do this – so from age 13 it was a goal for me. That was what I wanted to do. I wanted to play for Ireland, I wanted to tour on the Lions and it was Willie John McBride’s autobiography that played quite a big part in that around if you can see it you can be it.”

These days hockey occupies much of Matthews’ sporting interest, his daughter Hannah being part of the Ireland team that reached the 2018 World Cup final and is now preparing for the Olympics in Tokyo. “It gives you a bit of an insight into what it is like when my parents were watching me. It’s a totally different thing. It’s so nerve-wracking,” he said before dwelling on today’s pattern of hybrid rugby players, second rows who can play in his old blindside position.

“Because of the general increase of athleticism, there are some players that can do both. Tadhg Beirne, Courtney Lawes, even (Maro) Itoje has got that athleticism. There are other second rows, like Jonny Hill for instance, who aren’t going to be a No6 any time soon. If I was playing today I could probably do six, seven. Maybe at 6ft 3 I might be a seven rather than a six because of the size of sixes these days. I don’t know how different it is but there are second rows playing six now because the athleticism has increased across the board.”

The one-off Lions versus France match is still regarded as a non-capped game by World Rugby but the Lions have treated it differently, naming Matthews as their 638th capped player in a list currently numbering 835 players before next weekend’s tour-opening fixture versus the Japanese. He still treasures his Parc des Princes match jersey, reckons he has the match programme stored in a cardboard box full of rugby memorabilia at home in Dublin, while he was incredibly chuffed to receive a Lions cap a couple of years ago in recognition of his 1989 appearance.

“When you pick up the Lions jersey for the first time and you hold it, you look at the badge and it is all about the jersey for me. And then to get the cap a few years ago was a wonderful thing to do retrospectively. Every player that has played for the Lions now has a cap and a number and everybody gets a cap going forward because back in the day they didn’t give Lions caps. They are really treasured items for me, that jersey and the cap because the Lions is so steeped in history. It’s just an incredible thing.”

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Mike Teague and Wade Dooley celebrate 1989 Test series victory over Australia (Photo by Mark Leech/Getty Images)

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'I read that and thought, f***, if a farmer from Ballymena can do that then I can'

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