Rejected in his teens, the London Irish skipper has taken a circuitous route to Premiership rugby and is now pushing for England inclusion. Alan Pearey reports
Not the least of Graham Rowntree’s achievements during his time with England was a chat he had in New Zealand during England’s 2014 summer tour. It was there that he met Matt Symons, the 6ft 7in Chiefs lock, and convinced him that it may be in his interests to find himself a Premiership contract.
Last year Symons became eligible for the All Blacks but he is as English as jellied eels, having been born in Essex and raised in Hertfordshire. Had Saracens not rejected the once gangly teenager – “I played a couple of games for their academy side but they didn’t feel I was up to it” – then maybe Symons would now be enjoying life at the top of the Premiership instead of staring up from the bottom with London Irish.
To some extent it was that very rejection that fuelled his ambition, but the desire to do something special with his life was already deep within him. “I was a driven kid,” he says. “For me, I have fun when I’m being successful.”
Thus it was that when his mum read a newspaper ad appealing for tall, gifted athletes interested in becoming an elite rower, Symons jumped at the chance.
“The way it was pitched to me was, ‘If you get on this programme, you’ll have a good shot at making the (2012) Olympics’. I knew nothing about rowing but that appealed to me. And I took that option over playing men’s club rugby at a lower-league side, which a lot of kids do. I wanted to grasp that opportunity.”
Burning the midnight oil
Symons got through the testing and, at 18, moved to Reading to train full-time. The training was brutal but he was meeting the demands of the programme when he suffered a new setback – arm injuries that, even after surgery, forced him to quit the sport at 21.
Undaunted, he returned to rugby, working his way into Esher’s Championship team whilst studying for a geography degree at Reading. “I was driving an hour and an half each way (to the club) and it was pretty tiring,” he says. Most students don’t get beyond the campus bar.
In yet more startling shows of initiative, Symons contacted every Premiership club in search of a contract and, when that plan drew a blank, flew to New Zealand – the day after his finals – to play club rugby for High School Old Boys in Christchurch. Aaron Mauger and Reuben Thorne were the coaches, which tells you everything you need to know about the standard. Symons sometimes locked down with Thorne in the engine room.
“It’s a good level. You’ve got guys farming, working 50-hour weeks, who just want to play amateur rugby, you’ve got young guys coming through who want to play for the All Blacks, you’ve got professional players dropping down. In New Zealand if you’re not playing for your ITM Cup team or Super Rugby team, you’re still turning out every week for your club side. It’s the thing that keeps them so grounded because ultimately they just want to play rugby.”
Symons felt comfortable in such company and when Canterbury were looking around to top up their ITM Cup squad, they gave him a call. In 2014 he was offered a two-year contract and soon he was captaining a Crusaders Development team containing the likes of Owen Franks and Ryan Crotty. “I was having to give a talk and I’d never even played an ITM Cup game,” he says.
He soon put that right and, continuing his heady journey in pro sport, in next to no time was being signed by the Chiefs franchise that had just won back-to-back Super Rugby titles.
“I thought as an Englishman going over there that there would be a lot more obstacles, but they didn’t bat an eyelid the whole time. I could have been Kiwi, Japanese, anything, it wouldn’t have mattered.
“There are a few more English people over there than you think, but my advice (to aspiring young players) is go for it. Go to Australia as well. Go to South Africa. Why not? Even from just from a lifestyle point of view, why not?”
His memories of playing for the Chiefs are ones to cherish. “One of the hardest but also best matches was against the Stormers at Newlands. Both of us were unbeaten and it was a sell-out. Because of the whole apartheid issue, Kiwi teams have a lot of fans in Cape Town, so it was almost a 50:50 crowd. It was 30-plus degrees, a tough game and we came out on top.
“We had Sonny (Bill Williams), who’s Muslim. We had security coming out at the airport, people climbing up poles and telephone boxes. All the teams get security but we had people camped outside our hotel because of the All Blacks in our team and Sonny in particular. There’d be people getting out of cars to get your autographs. When we came to the stadium people were cheering and afterwards what seemed like a thousand people surrounded the coach. It was just madness.”
Fans sometimes ask him what it was like locking down with Brodie Retallick, a former World Rugby Player of the Year, but Symons says: “People always single him out but it’s not just him. The way they develop their squad in the All Black environment, there’s a lot of parts to that puzzle. Everyone does their role really well to allow Brodie to make those decisions: a good carry on the other side of the pitch, a good clean, good distribution.
“And that’s not necessarily the style all teams should play with. It works very well for the All Blacks but you couldn’t replicate that in many teams because of their (superior) skill-sets, and physically as well.”
With former Chiefs coach Tom Coventry now head man at London Irish, the Exiles could never be accused of neglecting their skills work. But nor are they putting the cart before the horse. “There are parts to our game we’ve got to get right first, and ultimately that was always what the Chiefs did, as well as the All Blacks,” Symons says.
“Rugby’s a physical game, it’s a contact game, you’ve got to win the gain-line. There’s no point being able to throw a 20-metre spin pass as a prop if you’re not scrummaging. So you’ve got to do your core roles and get that dealt with first before you worry about the X-factor.”
As we know, Symons heeded Rowntree’s advice and came home to Irish, whom he is captaining in the long-term absence of George Skivington. This weekend’s match is a massive one, Irish hosting a Newcastle team sitting one place and two points above them in the table.
The Exiles make two changes to the side beaten at Gloucester last week, with Jebb Sinclair replacing Blair Cowan in the back row and Topsy Ojo being named at full-back. Newcastle, seeking their first league win at the Madejski Stadium since 2009, bring in Scotland hooker Scott Lawson and tighthead Paddy Ryan, and their bench features Andy Goode – five months after he pulled out of a London Irish contract for medical reasons.
Symons will relish the occasion. His journey shows that you don’t have to follow the conventional route of academy and/or age-grade rugby to reach the top – some people are simply late developers. But you still need people to back you.
“Scott Robertson was the guy who gave me my biggest break. I owe him a lot. He was the head coach at Canterbury who offered me a contract for two years, for the ITM Cup.
“All I wanted was an opportunity, to maybe get a good reference off a coach to then come back and play here. To help me here, to help me anywhere.”
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Now 26, he is showing the defensive tenacity and lineout authority that served him so well in Super Rugby. Eddie Jones is spoilt for choice for English second-rows but Symons is making a case for inclusion in the squad announced next week. And if doesn’t happen then, maybe it will next time. You can be sure he will never give up.
London Irish v Newcastle Falcons, Sunday 10 January (kick-off 1pm), live on BT Sport