24 December 2004
Newcastle Falcons fullback Matthew Burke might be spending Christmas in the comparative cold of the north east, but the former Wallaby insists that the barbies and beer back home have not been enough to lure him away from Kingston Park during the festive period.
The 31-year-old Australian plays his tenth Zurich Premiership game on Monday at Headingley as his side travels to face Leeds Tykes, but with the prospect of a first Christmas on Tyneside two days earlier, he reveals: "It's not actually the first time I've spent it in Britain.
"When I was young we came on a schoolboy tour to the UK, and we spent Christmas in Wales. To be honest, we were so bored that we ended up training on Christmas day, but with my family around me this time we're looking forward to it.
"It will be an unusual Christmas, because back home we're usually sat on a beach sunning ourselves and having a few beers around this time of year. We're having a bit of a southern hemisphere gathering this time, with my family hooking up with the Mayerhoflers and the Nesdales, so it should be nice.
"It's one of those things that makes the guys down under in awe of European players, that they train and play throughout the Christmas period, but being here for myself, it's not actually that big a deal at all, and you just have to get on with it. I look at the weather pages and I see zero degrees for Christmas day, so it's different, but it's not a problem at all."
Burke's settling period in Newcastle will reach an important stage next month, as he says: "We're hoping to move into our own house in January, and to get out of rented accommodation makes it feel a lot more like a proper move, which is great, and means we're not just thinking short term. It's a permanent place for us, and it means we'll be able to live the Newcastle lifestyle a bit more.
"Getting the family settled was the first thing, and once that's taken care of the rugby just seems to follow. In the last few months we've been getting there and finding our feet, and thankfully the rugby side of things has been going well."
Adapting to life in the north east has meant brushing up on his language skills, with Wallsend's cultural ambassador Micky Ward leaving a big mark on the 81-times-capped world cup winner.
"Aye", is his response when asked if he has picked up any Geordie phrases yet, adding: "It's always a good laugh listening to Micky with some of the stories he tells, but there is still a little language barrier there.
"Sometimes when we're warming up and running round the field in a pack, Blackie will shout something which everyone but me understands, so they'll sprint off in one direction, and about two seconds later I'll follow them.
"I'm getting there slowly, although Bob Morton, the fitness and conditioning coach, is the one I'm struggling with most. He'll say something in Geordie and usually I can pick a few words out, and then when I reply sometimes people can't understand what I'm saying either. It's great though, and we all take the Mickey out of each other, so it's a really fun atmosphere to be in and an excellent team spirit."
Having already made a massive mark with the supporters during his time here, Burke says: "I hope I'm relatively personable to the fans, and the few times I've been downstairs into the supporters' bar after the game we've all had a bit of a laugh together. The rugby is serious, but after the game you've got to have a bit of fun with the fans who've come to watch you, and I hope that comes across well.
"What I've found at this club and in the city as a whole is that people are extremely friendly, and it makes things a lot easier when I reciprocate that, which is the way it should be."
But Burke's positive influence has not just been limited to off the pitch, saying: "It's a chance to make a difference and have an input into the team, helping to forge the culture of this squad along with the other guys. I'm enjoying it, which is the main thing.
"It was tough to start with, there's no doubt about that, but it's been enormously positive all round."
So, what are the Falcons' prospects for the new year?
"Most of the teams that are above us in the league still have to come here and play us, and we have confidence from the recent run of wins we had before the Saracens game," says Burke.
"We haven't been winning in a pretty way, but we've been able to grind out the results, which is a big part of how teams move forward. I've said this to Rob and to the squad - good teams are able to win while they're playing poorly, and to win in the 80th minute.
"Some of the supporters said to me that they'd love us to win a game by 40 points, and to know at half time that we're going to win, but if it takes 82-and-a-half minutes to win, then so be it. Those sorts of wins are a sign that we can now go the distance in games, and if we make ourselves a hard team to beat at home, win a few away games, then we're in the mix.
"It's all about getting that confidence to go on a winning run, and we have an immensely talented squad here.
"We have a goal in making the top three of the league, and it comes down to the consistency of week in week out performances. If you put the horse before the cart you can lose your way a little bit, but I think we have a great mental approach to games and a clear idea of what we want to do, so it's not beyond us at all."