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9 problems

Alby Mathewson on loving Munster, Ulster and living alone during Covid

The Ulster scrum-half admits building relationships in a squad is difficult when time in their company is so limited.

ALBY MATHEWSON IS happy to talk.

That much was already borne out through his time with Munster. But coming up on 4pm in the middle of an Ulster training week, he appears all the more content to stay and chat.

An ordinary day, when he’s not put up for a virtual press conference after training, would already see him back to his Belfast digs by now.

It might be a stretch to call that place home. Mathewson is living by himself at the minute. His wife Cara and their three children are back in their home on Australia’s Gold Coast, so there is an abundance of time to kill in between the time he slings his bag over his back at Ravenhill and 9pm, when his family get up to start their day.

Of course, a long distance status to the closest of relationships is not quite a new hurdle for the scrum-half. He has been racking up the Skype minutes over the past three years. This time around is different, though.

At Bristol, Toulon and Munster, he headed for Europe having committed to short-term contracts. His intelligent, energetic and high-skilled style ensured he became popular with fans and players alike in the southern province and his contract was extended and extended again.

He is enjoying his rugby with Ulster as a squad. Yet, while he has paid extra-curricular visits to team-mates, the times we’re in mean relationships have had to remain pretty professional. Being a seasoned pro playing far from home is a lonely business during a  pandemic.

No team bonding sessions, no pre-match group breakfasts or Sunday Braais. The weeks ahead will ring in his birthday and Christmas. Sure, Northern Ireland is sneaking out of lockdown, but it’s not exactly living the dream.

“Bit of reading, lot of podcasts,” comes the list when Mathewson is asked how he keeps his mind busy. He adds video games to the list, admonishing himself by noting he’s 35 – though he won’t be until next month.

Otherwise, he jokes that he just ‘hangs around here’, gesturing to the Kingspan Stadium. He’s not feeling sorry for his situation. So many rugby players don’t get a sniff of playing into their 30s and he’s not the only man in the group who go home to an empty apartment.

Still, it can’t have been what he imagined the twilight of his career to look like when he signed up for Ulster last winter. After his year in Munster, the half-back’s reputation was on the up in Ireland and the northern province knew the quality they were bringing on board.

He’s enjoying the surroundings on the other end of the island. It’s just not the same when relationships are so much harder to build.

alby-mathewson-and-billy-holland-celebrate-james-cronins-try Gary Carr / INPHO Gary Carr / INPHO / INPHO

“I really did love Munster. For me, I was there again by myself, no family or anything. I’ve got some really strong relationships with those guys there, they’ll be friends for life because they ended up being my family. I spent a lot of time with them outside of rugby.

That’s the tricky thing – not being able to mingle outside of rugby. Although I have been to a few of the boys’ places, with the way things are at the moment it’s been tricky to do.”

He adds: “But the boys have been really welcoming and it’s been easy to fit in, in terms of rugby and that. It’s difficult outside of our bubble here to get to know the lads well, which is always important in a team sport, getting to know the guys off the field, not just rugby.

“The only time I get to spend with them is in training and the gym. Hopefully things will change soon enough and I can get to know them a bit better outside of rugby. All in all it’s been fun. We’re winning, and you can’t complain with winning.”

The winning streak now stands at six after swatting aside a poor Zebre outfit on Monday. Ulster’s shot at a seventh on the trot will have the welcome quirk of a small crowd in attendance (kick-off 19.35, Sunday) against Scarlets.

alby-mathewson-arrives Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

While Mathewson was understudy to a marquee name and mentor to up-and-coming 9s in Munster and now again in Ulster, his role in the squad dynamic is a touch different in the northern province. The age profile in Munster’s first team is markedly higher than Ulster’s at the minute. So the All Black is not just one of the elder statesmen, he and Louis Ludik are a few years ahead of the other veterans.

One of the young men he did suit up with in Munster is again his team-mate this weekend. Bill Johnston has had to be relatively patient for opportunities in the Ulster 10 shirt, but these weeks with Billy Burns down in Abbotstown have allowed him to shine while guiding Ulster to their winning run.

“I’d be big on talking to my 10s,” says Mathewson.

“That’s what I talk about relationships outside as well. Like, when you get to know them, you get to know what makes them tick and how they see certain things.

“I’d very much be (whether) at training, off the field, on the go: ‘you see this picture’, ‘if I see this picture what are you thinking’… blah blah blah. I’d always be bouncing ideas.

“I’d be a people watcher as well, so I’d sit back and watch how they play, and even from playing against them and analysing them I’d have a fair idea of them. I like to think I can work people out fairly quickly as well.

“So while it is handy to have played with Bill before, I find that I’d be fairly comfortable with any sort of 10 coming in and playing with whoever. Even if it was Mike Lowry coming in as well. Just spending time with them and watching them play, you get a sense of how they like to play.”

Ulster: Michael Lowry, Matt Faddes, Luke Marshall, Stewart Moore, Rob Lyttle, Bill Johnston, John Cooney; Eric O’Sullivan, John Andrew, Marty Moore, Alan O’Connor (Capt.), Kieran Treadwell, Matty Rea, Sean Reidy, Marcell Coetzee.

Replacements: Adam McBurney, Kyle McCall, Tom O’Toole, David O’Connor, Jordi Murphy, Alby Mathewson, Ian Madigan, Craig Gilroy.

Scarlets: Angus O’Brien; Ryan Conbeer, Steff Hughes (Capt),  Paul Asquith,  Steff Evans;  Dan Jones, Dane Blacker; Rob Evans, Taylor Davies, Javan Sebastian, Sam Lousi, Danny Drake, Ed Kennedy,  Jac Morgan, Sione Kalamafoni

Replacements: Daf Hughes, Phil Price, Werner Kruger, Jac Price, Uzair Cassiem, Will Homer, Sam Costelow, Tyler Morgan.

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