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'I was well underweight for what your average Premiership back-rower would be, I'm a good 11/12 kilos up on where I was'

By Liam Heagney

Trending on RugbyPass

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London Irish skipper Matt Rogerson and his fiancée are just back in the door at their south-west London home, their Labrador dog Harley puffed out after a long walk. It’s the day-off-from-rugby highlight in these pandemic times, two to three hours outdoors to clear the mind.

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“It’s been a decent day so far,” he quickly declared to RugbyPass a few days before Sunday’s Gallagher Premiership tussle with bogey team Worcester. The Warriors may be bottom of the table but for whatever reason Irish have been the opposition they have regularly been able to put manners on, winning all three encounters since Exiles club returned to the top flight last term.

The fascination as Irish head into their latest battle is how the unheralded Rogerson has risen to such prominence in the English top flight. Irish are certainly getting bang for their buck from the 27-year-old back row. Ten league appearances this season, an average 1.75-metre gain per carry, 13 defenders beaten, 117 tackles made and just a since tackle missed are some of the headline stats making him stand out in an Exiles dressing room bustling with international caps and some household from around the rugby world.

Rogerson certainly isn’t in that stratospheric Irish bracket. If the traditional developmental ways of English rugby held sway, the Lancastrian wouldn’t be within an ass’s roar of playing in the Premiership, never mind skippering a club as he will do this Sunday in Brentford. Essentially, he is another Alex Dombrandt, a university player only with some added oomph in the sense that he has undertaken a far more arduous, circuitous route to the top flight than his Harlequins counterpart.

There was no academy pathway involvement, no England age-grade selection. Just a lot of blood, sweat and emotion in making it this far. Even after stating out by marrying action for Loughborough University with a National One apprenticeship playing for Fylde, there were still setbacks, an unfulfilled couple of years on the tackle bag at Sale leaving Rogerson, the now Irish success story, at a crossroads – to carry on and fight the daunting odds or quit chasing pro rugby and instead head to the City and do something prosperous with his marketing and management degree.

In the end, Rogerson rolled the dice and backed his rugby career, a Championship season at Jersey being the entry to where he is now, a treasured part of the London Irish furniture after was convinced to sign by Nick Kennedy, Declan Kidney’s predecessor at the yo-yo club that is now finding its face does actually fit at Premiership level. Just like the bulked up, finely tuned Rogerson.

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“When I first joined Sale out of uni I was 102/103kgs,” he explained, reflecting on the long and winding road from the 2015 fringes of the game to where he is now. “You get away with that as a short, stockier back row but I’m 6ft 5 and quite tall and rangy. I was probably well underweight for what your average Premiership back-rower would be.

“Looking at what I am now, 114/115kgs, so I’m a good 11/12 kilos up on where I was six, seven years ago largely through muscle mass and the strengthening side more than anything else. I was one of those guys who although had that rugby ability I needed to develop physically as well in order to be able to match what was required in terms of the Premiership intensity.”

The bumps and bruises shaped Rogerson, everything from being a fresh-faced kid getting toughened up in the Fylde grassroots to Steve Diamond laying it on thick knowing he wasn’t going to make it in Manchester. “It’s definitely quite an unorthodox path. A lot of the guys at Irish have come through a rugby pathway, an academy or age-grade international stuff which then brings you into full-time professional teams.

“My route for sure was different, hard years at National One and uni, learning my craft that way while also having a degree to fall back on. You do really earn your stripes in lower leagues and those experiences have been invaluable.

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“It’s a unique pathway. Not a lot of guys end up doing it that way in pro rugby and I’d like to see more have that ambition. At uni at 21, 22 years old, you’re in that middle ground where you are above academy age and you are also not a professional player yet, so you’re stuck in that grey area and there are a lot of really good players who get missed out on because there is not the same pathway through.

“Looking back on my experiences there is nothing more valuable than playing in those leagues and developing. Even when you get knocked about as a young lad you will learn ten times more doing that than just training every day and just being within an environment where you are training and not playing. It is hugely important to get young lads out and keep them playing and developing. That is where you are going to learn your craft.

“It was a challenging time at Sale. I’d come out of uni where I had played 20, 30-odd games a year in National One every year and suddenly you’re in a Premiership environment and not getting anywhere the same game time (a single Anglo-Welsh Cup appearance).

“On the one hand, I learned a huge amount because it was my first step in a fully professional environment, so it took me about twelve months just to adjust to the level of the training load, the professionalism that was expected, the training standards, the expectation of how much you are required to work on your own game in your own time, work on your own skillset, all these things that I didn’t know.

“But it was also a very difficult time as well. Any guy that age, 21, just wants to be playing rugby and it was difficult to be training every week and not having that carrot at the end of the week to show what you can do to help the team and gain some personal recognition.

Dimes tells it pretty straight. Coming out of Loughborough and playing National One and then wanting to break into a Prem side, Dimes was honest and upfront saying I was going to have to work really hard in order to get to a position where I was playing in the Prem.

“It wasn’t just the rugby ability that you needed developing but the physical capabilities as well. As a back row, and particularly in the Sale pack, it is a very abrasive position and I was still physically developing at that age.

“I spent a lot of time in the gym doing extra sessions to get some muscle mass on and with the S&C guys doing conditioning work when I wasn’t playing in order to make sure I was going to be fit enough to play matches when they rolled around. That is something the coaches and Dimes probably knew and it took me a bit longer than other guys to develop that sort of capability.

“Despite picking up a few games here and there in my second year it wasn’t enough to fully whet my appetite, so a move at that point was the best idea… it was tough, a real fork in the road. When I came out of Sale I’d the option of pursuing a career elsewhere, going back to my degree route and working in the City like I had done while I was at uni in my placement year, or continue pursuing rugby. That is what led me down the Jersey path which in hindsight was probably the best decision I ever made.”

Rogerson played 16 Championship matches for the Islanders, another 18 at that second-tier level after Irish snapped him up, and now he is flying in the Premiership, 28 appearances these past 18 months despite the lockdown interruption.

Jerry Sexton, the ex-London Irish lock, was a useful confidante at Jersey, putting a good word in when Kennedy came enquiring, and having seen numerous other players make the transition from Championship to Premiership, Rogerson is bemused by the RFU treating it like a difficult child and shaving its funding.

“It’s a shame because if funded more appropriately the Championship could expand and become a league more on a par to the Premiership. I’d love to see it as a league that would be able to grow and expand and become less of a gap away from the Premiership.

“The biggest thing the Jersey year taught me was just me the ability to back up week to week playing physical rugby against good sides, good professional players, and the level of professionalism, of discipline and physicality required in order to do that.

“I went out every week and basically played as if it was the last game I was ever going to play because that was the only way I was going to advance myself and get myself out of the Championship. I always had the ambition to go higher than that.”

Rogerson is enjoying fulfilling that lofty promise with Irish. The impression from the outside is that things have suddenly clicked in recent months, the team flying up the table with a rich run of form, but the back row would like to think there is much more to it than that. “I wouldn’t say it has been a sudden click, more of a long process we have been building over time.

“We have always had within us what we have been showcasing at the moment, it just takes a bit of time for those bonds to form and that camaraderie and belief in the group to grow… you can’t underestimate how much of a lengthy and arduous process it is to bring the calibre of player in that you want and also have the talent that mixes well together, understands how each other wants to play, understands what it means to fight for each other.

“All those things take a lot of time on the pitch in order to grow and develop and now we are starting to see the fruit of some of that labour that has gone in over the last couple of years. I can see from an outsider’s perspective how it looked like it appeared from nowhere, but it has been slowly building and we still have a bit of growth because we want to be winning things.

“The difference we have in personalities and culture is what makes us who we are. You shove together so many people who all have the same experiences and the same thing, it’s probably going to be a bit boring and you are just going to get the same old same old. But the fact we have plenty of guys from all these different places across the globe makes it a really interesting mix.

“There is rarely a day when I don’t come in and find out something new about someone else that I didn’t know before, it’s just we have all different walks of life all coming together. It’s a great atmosphere… one thing I learned recently is that Lovejoy (Chawatama) knows no bounds with his haircuts.

“He recently completely wet shaved his head and that was apparently a hidden desire he had for a while, a completely shaved head, so he has gone from looking like a 28-year-old man to a 45-year-old with a Bic shaved head. There are plenty of other things I can think of but I wouldn’t want to throw too many boys under the bus either.”

When all is said and done, Rogerson hopes London Irish remains the standout club of his life, a home from home that has been the making of the northerner’s professional career. “The ability to potentially win games with your mates every single week is probably the best part about the whole thing. Especially at this level, it is so, so hard to win games. You literally have to fight tooth and nail and that is off the back of a tough prep week training.

“It’s physically and mentally demanding and you have to have all the guys on song in order to deliver a win. When you’re in the heat of that battle I don’t think there is any better feeling than that. There is nothing else in the world career-wise that would quite give me that same adrenaline rush that I get.

“Winning at the end of it all is such a clear cut and dry feeling. On the losses, it can feel pretty deep and dark sometimes but with the wins, you feel like you are the king of the world. There is no better feeling than that so hopefully we can go on and win trophies. We have the ambition to win things and I look forward to hopefully achieving that one day. That will give me one hell of an adrenaline buzz.”

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'I was well underweight for what your average Premiership back-rower would be, I'm a good 11/12 kilos up on where I was'

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