Matt Symons might have been an Olympic rower. Matt Symons might have been an All Black. Both notions sound fanciful but they did once have a grain of possibility in them.

What is for sure is that Symons has added heft and industry to a Harlequins pack that is looking to impose itself against one of the lock forward's former clubs, Wasps, in the Big Game at Twickenham on Saturday. There is a reinvigorated, hardened feel about Quins under the new management of Paul Gustard and Symons is at the heart of that revival.

If there are paths less travelled in rugby then Symons, 29, has done a good job of navigating his way along it. Having turned his back on rugby at 18 after he failed to make the cut at the Saracens Academy, he was talent-spotted for an Olympic Pathway rowing programme alongside the likes of double gold medallist Helen Glover. He trained hard for three years only for his arms to "blow up" - as he puts it - with Compartment Syndrome, so he packed his bags and headed to New Zealand, courtesy of his mum's largesse for the air ticket.

The trip was meant to be for just a few months; instead, Symons stayed for three years. He initially worked in a refrigerator plant, labouring on sites and playing rugby on an amateur basis, but ended up among leading All Blacks such as Brodie Retallick, Sam Cane and Aaron Cruden and acquitting himself well for the two-time champion Chiefs in Super Rugby. There were even inquiries from the New Zealand union as to his eligibility as Symonds would have qualified through residency. He is the first to point out that "the NZRFU probably contact a lot of people" and admits that if the approach had gone any further that "I couldn't justify the jersey... because I am English."

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Matt Symons (left) now plays for English club Harlequins. Photo / Getty Images
Matt Symons (left) now plays for English club Harlequins. Photo / Getty Images

The Kiwi experience was life-shaping for Symons. What was initially supposed to be a young bloke's fleeting escapade turned into something altogether more formative. Symons has a geography degree from the University of Reading and soon found a role working at the Earthquake Commission in Christchurch, dealing with insurance, logistics and planning in the wake of the devastating upheaval of 2011. Rugby was simply a leisure activity, although, as ever, in New Zealand talent is quickly spotted.

"The pathways are so quick compared to here," said Symons. "I lived with George Bridge who used to be labourer (and is now an All Black). I was playing for High School OBs, then Canterbury came calling, work were really helpful, you get an ITM contract and then, if it works out, into Super Rugby.

"I was fortunate to be in the leadership group with the likes of Liam Messam, Sam Cane and Brodie Retallick. What impressed me was how calm those leaders are. Gone are the days of head-butting each other, all that emotional stuff. It is just about clear, simple messages, what do we do from this re-start or line-out, or 10 minutes to go, what's the plan now?"

Symons has been around the block, immersing himself back into English rugby through Championship side Esher before his old boss at the Chiefs, Tom Coventry, brought him to London Irish. From there it was a spell with Wasps, appearing for them in the Premiership final in 2017, before being signed up by previous director of rugby at Harlequins, John Kingston.

It takes a lot to impress Kiwis and the integration of Symons into their system shows that he has plenty to offer. He may not be a giant among today's Leviathans but, as any New Zealander will testify, it is mastery of the basics that counts. Yet Symons has yet to excite the interest of England selectors. Does he feel unfulfilled? Has he made the most of what he might have to offer?

Matt Symons scored one try in 28 games with the Chiefs. Photo / Photosport
Matt Symons scored one try in 28 games with the Chiefs. Photo / Photosport

"Good questions," says Symons. "On one side, yes: on another side, no. I had no right to play professional rugby. I didn't play rugby at all from 18-21. The system went against me. I was too small at 18. I didn't turn professional until I was 24. I've only been a pro for five years so the body is good and all that rowing did at least give me an engine. I spent three years getting flogged."

Symons, whose best pal is Great Britain rower Adam Neill, admits that rowing training is of an entirely different order to anything he has experienced in rugby.

"With rowing, it hurts every time and on a two-kilometre row you know you're going to be out of your mind," said Symons. "I had coffee with Adam recently on his day off and he was falling asleep at the table. It is a different world although there is cross-over in terms of the mind-set needed. Chris Robshaw or James Horwill would have done well in rowing."

Symons has set his sights on making his mark at Harlequins first and foremost - a late starter with, he hopes, a turbo-boost finish to his career. There are international aspirations floating about in there, too.

"No player would shy away from test rugby. My body feels good. It is about working hard and if you do that then you will crack the nut."