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Matthew Burke lands in Newcastle

31 August 2004

Australian icon Matthew Burke touched down at Kingston Park on this week to start his new challenge at Newcastle Falcons, immediately being thrown a curveball with the tropical Geordie conditions that greeted him.

"Everyone has told me how cold it gets up here, but I woke up and thought I needed to go out and get some sun-screen," says Burke, who featured for Australia in their Tri-Nations decider against South Africa in Durban just over a week ago.

The 31-year-old joins a summer influx at the Falcons which includes a total of 253 international caps - 81 of them being his own, after an 11-year Test career which has seen him rack up an incredible 878 points.

While the Tyne Bridge and the new Gateshead Opera House may have a certain resemblance to Sydney's famous landmarks, Burke's decision to bring wife Kate and daughters Edie (five-and-a-half months) and Harriette (23 months) was thought through with great attention.

Instrumental in the move was former Falcons and Wallaby forwards coach Andrew Blades, as Burke reveals: "I asked Bladesy a lot of questions when I was deciding whether to come to Newcastle.

"The fact that our surnames both start with �B' means we seem to sit next to each other a lot on aeroplanes when the Wallabies travel, so I've been bending his ear a lot about the place.

"He was very positive about the club. He said it gets cold, so I'll have to prepare for that, but I'm looking forward to it all."

While he may have already accomplished everything at Test level - the World Cup, Bledisloe Cup and Tri-Nations - Burke insists he is still hungry for more.

"It's very much a new phase in my career," he says.

"It's an exciting prospect coming here, even at this stage in my career. There's a lot of talent here, and I want to be a part of it. The challenge comes more from within. Everyone likes to see results, and the challenge is to keep playing well. Over the years I've vowed to do that, to play at a consistently high level, and now is no different.

"Newcastle are already a quality side, with the Powergen Cup win and everything, but getting the likes of Colin Charvis in will take it up a notch. The club has a number of players here who I've admired for a long while, and that was definitely a factor in coming here."

Given his outstanding form from the bench during the recent Test and Tri-Nations programme for Australia, voices down under have been linking Burke with a place in the Wallabies' autumn tour squad, although the man himself is adamant that his illustrious international days are behind him.

"I'm now dead as far as Australian rugby is concerned, and I've severed my ties completely with them.

"Before I came over here the coach, Eddie Jones, did an interview somewhere and mentioned that I might not have played my last game for Australia, but basically the answer is �no'.

"I know they come over here to the UK in November, and like every other Australian in the UK I'll be paying my money as a punter at the gate and sitting in the stand shouting them on. But will I play? No.

"I've done a great deal of training this year but I haven't played enough rugby, so I'm really enthusiastic to get out there and play. Against South Africa I got six minutes, and I was joking with the guys that I wanted more game time and they wanted less. It's great to be part of an international team, but game time is what it's all about."

On his decision to leave long-time side the New South Wales Waratahs, he explains: "I always thought I was going to play my seasons out at the Waratahs, but as it turned out they didn't take up an option for next year. I was quite disappointed with that, not because they didn't give me a chance, but probably because of the loyalty factor.

"I thought I was playing good football, and I went on to be part of the Wallaby team, but as soon as I found out about the Waratahs situation I went to my wife Kate and asked her about the chances of the family going overseas. She's excited about the prospect of living in Newcastle, and so am I."

Asked which position he will be playing for a Falcons squad which includes Jonny Wilkinson, Burke jokes: "No.10, for sure.

"Seriously though, outside centre or fullback are probably the positions which suit my game best. I made the move to the centres in 2002, and I enjoyed handling the ball more, but I've played a lot of Tests at fullback and I enjoy the running and kicking aspects of that, as well as the defence.

"I have no problem in playing either of those positions, and I'm happy to play wherever Rob Andrew tells me he wants me."

While his move to the Falcons represents his first extended stint in Europe, Burke does reveal a little-known fact, that he has already played at Kingston Park against the club.

"I was here in 1996 I think, and played against the old Newcastle Gosforth here, when the stadium was a lot different then to what it is now. I don't think Rob played for Newcastle in that game, but I remember that we won, and that it was freezing cold!"

Of the city in general, he adds: "My experience of Newcastle is that most people aren't in a state to speak when they leave the place.

"The only other time I came here was this year with the Barbarians when I came here to have a look at the club. Rob drove me around the city for an hour-and-a-half, and I was impressed by what I saw.

"The physio at the Waratahs, also studied here for three years, and he loved it, so he's really excited for me in coming here.

"I just can't wait to get out on to the field now and get stuck into some rugby."