Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

League: McFadden winds up Big Ben's spring

Jaded prop's switch out wide helps spark fresh life into the Warriors' season.

Ben Matulino's positional switch by new coach Andrew McFadden has brought about an immediate improvement in form. Photo / Getty Images
Ben Matulino's positional switch by new coach Andrew McFadden has brought about an immediate improvement in form. Photo / Getty Images

Big Ben is back. Or you might say Ben Matulino has been reborn - in a new position, under a new coach. And he is one of the keys to the reigniting of the Warriors' season.

Andrew McFadden switched Matulino to the second row and he is wreaking havoc out wide.

He broke the game open against the Raiders last week, scoring the first try and making three tackle breaks (no other Warriors forward managed one) with a series of heavy runs. Against the Bulldogs in round six, he created the first two tries with offloads.

It's a relief for Warriors fans, as for a while Matulino went missing. Regarded as one of the best props in the game after standout years in 2011 and 2012, he seemed to go backwards under Matt Elliott. The coach was indecisive, often using Matulino from the interchange bench and strangely restricting his minutes.

It affected Matulino's confidence and rhythm, but McFadden has changed all that in a single swoop.

"Cappy has done wonders for my game," says Matulino. "He tells you how it is and doesn't beat around the bush. He told me what he wanted from me and how he wanted to use me - that I was going to play back row straightaway, at least in the short term."

Matulino has responded, and played an unprecedented 80 minutes against Canberra.

"It was the first time I had played a full game since I was 13 years old," laughs Matulino. "In the last 20 minutes I was looking at the bench but I realised no one was coming on."

It's early days, but it could be a masterstroke. Matulino was a second-rower in his NYC days, before Ivan Cleary converted him into a prop. Cleary had valid reasons and it also followed an NRL-wide trend at the time towards having mobile props. But big men, no matter how athletic, tend to neutralise each other within the traffic in the middle whereas Matulino can do much more damage further out wide.

"What I see is utilising Ben anywhere on the field to highlight opposition weaknesses," says McFadden. "At the moment that is best on the edge but [he] is quite versatile.

"He's big and powerful but has a huge amount of skill and awareness. I want to put him in situations where he can actually use that."

Matulino's switch is unusual. There have been plenty to move up through the pack, but not many who have gone the other way. Steve Price was one of the first to convert from a back-rower to a prop while others have included Jacob Lillyman, Ruben Wiki (via centre) and Sam Moa. There are also men like Paul Gallen and Frank-Paul Nuuausala who have played lock and front row. But from prop to second row - the trenches to the edges - is rare; Sam Burgess is one recent example, while 1980s Kiwis forward Kurt Sorensen would sometimes play front row at club level and in the back row for his country.

"It's a bit confusing at times," says Matulino. "It's very different on the edge, especially with the defensive decisions that you have to make. Obviously you have a lot of players running at you so it is about making the right call. The coaching staff have helped me ... doing lots of video sessions [and] breaking it down for me so the transition has been smoother."

For his size (1.93m, 109kg) Matulino is light on his feet and can find a gap. His momentum carries him through the line, where his offloading skill comes into play. The arrival of Ryan Hoffman at Mt Smart next year may complicate matters - as there will be a logjam in the back row - but Matulino's emergence will also put pressure on Feleti Mateo to up his game.

Meanwhile, Sunday's match in Hamilton looms as another classic, like so many previous clashes between the Bulldogs and the Warriors.

"They are back doing what they have been known for, says Matulino, "their forwards are rolling through teams. We need to show some real intent on defence and hopefully we come out on top."

- NZ Herald

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