Creative giant - Matt Banahan

Country: England
Age: 25 (30 Dec 1986)
Position: Wing
Born: St Helier, Jersey

Moved from the back row to the wing by Brian Ashton, Matt Banahan has taken an unusual journey to Test rugby. Here he tells his story…

My first sport was hockey, which I did alongside athletics and cricket. At cricket, I was a batsman who could turn his arm over. At athletics, it was long jump and a bit of running.

My dad was my hockey coach and he was one of the harshest I’ve ever had. He said he couldn’t show me any favours, but I still remember them as great times.

Sport was on my doorstep growing up in Jersey. A hundred metres from school there was a running track, tennis courts, croquet, rugby and football pitches, so how could I fail? I had a huge bag packed with different kit and I’d wander over, see who was playing what and just join in.

I was reminded of Jersey in Queenstown, New Zealand. They’re both such sporty places, though the sports are a bit more extreme in Queenstown!

I grew too quickly, which put strain on my muscles and I had to let my body catch up with that growth development.

I only started playing rugby because I had to. I was 14 and my school, Les Quennevais, did rugby for one term. I played a year later at 15, too, but I didn’t pick up a ball again until a few weeks before my 17th birthday. After missing out on the England hockey team, I told my dad I wanted to try something else.

I remember watching Bath play in my teens and saying I wanted to play in the same position as Matt Perry. My dad said, ‘That’s full-back’. It shows you how little I knew!

At college is where rugby kicked off for me as all my mates were playing the game. I told the coaches there I played full-back, but they said in that weekend’s game I’d be playing six.

I ran the length of the field to score in that first game at college in the December and, after turning 17, I moved straight into senior rugby with Jersey.

A huge help for me was Jersey’s RFU Development Officer, Mark White, and I then signed a contract with London Irish just after I turned 18, in January 2005.

Matt's son Joseph

The key for me was basic skills. My dad always said that those people who perform the basics the best would succeed. I’ve seen the best players in the world do their basics really well and when they needed to do something else they could. That is what Matt Perry was like.

My move from the back row to the backs came at the RFU Junior National Academy, where I was spotted by Brian Ashton. He said, ‘You have the attributes of a winger’ and I loved the idea of moving into the backs again.

I signed for Bath when Brian was there, but he then left (to take the England job). So I soon had two new coaches, Steve Meehan and Mark Bakewell, and spent a whole pre-season trying to prove myself to them.

I made mistakes early on and acted like I’d made it. I went back to Jersey that season and my brother, Paul, challenged me, asking me if I’d given it my best shot. I had to admit I hadn’t, so we started training together.

The next pre-season made me the player I am now as I was paired up with Danny Grewcock. I trained really hard in that pre-season and it led to my first start against Worcester in 2007.

A turning point for me was meeting my partner, Becky.  She played for Bath and was once a Rugby World hotshot – she still has the page! – so she understands what it takes and that makes a huge difference to me. The birth of our son, Joseph, was also a massive turning point.

Lucky is how I feel to have made it as far as I have. I played my first senior game at 17 and three-and-a-half years later I was playing for England against Argentina at Old Trafford.

Matt has played in 16 Tests for England and scored four tries. He also represented Jersey and the West of England at hockey.

This article appeared in the February 2012 issue of Rugby World Magazine.

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