By STEVE MASCORD
MATT Bowen probably hasn’t made a controversial statement in his life. But, shielding his eyes against the Florida sun, today he is no mood for mincing words.
“What better game than to go play in the World Club Challenge in Sydney? I want to go back and prove a few people wrong,” the 31-year-old, who has played his entire 13-year career at North Queensland, tells the Sun-Herald.
“I always wanted to play on. I would have played at the Cowboys another year and that would have been me. But I got told I wasn’t wanted and then I wanted to prove people wrong – that I still had something in the tank.
“I always wanted to finish my playing back at the club.”
We are sitting on a pool bench at the National Training Center in Chermont, Florida. The town water tower is not far away in the distance; the manicured hedges, wide open spaces, field with rugby posts and single story gym are reminiscent of 1300smiles Stadium, where Bowen has been at this time every year of his adult life.
But it’s not Townsville. Bowen, maybe the most popular player in NRL history, has travelled to the other side of the world to get his Wigan house keys, then to Florida for this training camp. He’ll have two pre-season games in the UK, then one in New Zealand and the WCC against Sydney Roosters on February 22.
He ignores prompts to go into great detail about who told him his tenure at the club was over, and what their exact words were. But he does not disguise his pain.
“It’s the Cowboys telling me I wasn’t needed this year,” he says as his new team-mates wander from the pool to mini-buses which will take them to the nearby bungalows where they are staying.
“They just told me they had other plans. They gave me a job there but in saying that, I wasn’t done playing.
“I’ve spent a long time there and I’m leaving all my mates behind. It was a bit hard at the start.”
“Mango” believes perception – all those stories about his knee cartilage being grown in a petri dish – played a role his demise at the Cowboys. “I think so, I got sick of getting asked about it and I’m sure the papers got sick of writing about it.
“At the end of the day, I’m back playing and enjoying it.” Bowen may have become a contortionist in the off-season, adding: “The knee’s behind me”.
When he got the news he had been dreading – and reading about – for months, Bowen says he didn’t seriously consider retiring; not for a second. Raw stats suggest his game is not what it once was, but more than once he was the Cowboys’ best player in 2013 matches.
If he had been judged against the standards of others, and not his own from a decade ago, he would probably still be in the NRL.
There were reports Hopevale’s favourite son did not want to play against the Cowboys, but in fact joining another NRL team was something he seriously considered. “I did but that sort of fell through,” he explains. “I’m just happy now where I am.”
The Cowboys job offer is still open, but Bowen has not ruled out a triumphant (and even vengeful?) return to the NRL in 2015 if his form with Wigan warrants it. “A few people were saying that, that crossed my mind,” he said, “but I’m committed to Wigan now. If that got tossed up and I’m feeling good and I want to go back, I’m sure that will be one of the things to do.”
Wigan return to Britain today after 10 days in Florida, which saw them train under MMA fighter Seth Petruzelli.. Bowen’s family will catch him on his second lap of the globe and move to Wigan after the WCC.
While it wasn’t his first choice, playing for Wigan is not something the fullback takes for granted. He’s walking in the shadows of giants like Kenny, Ferguson and Miles and replacing Sam Tomkins.
“I’ve always wanted to play in the Super League,” he says. “I went for a tour in the DW Stadium the other day … if I can play a game in the Wigan jersey I’ll put my name down in history with all the names that have played for Wigan.”
Filed for: SUN-HERALD