To have achieved legend status in Australian rugby circles, you have to have been something truly special.
And alongside Wallaby icons such as Trevor Allen, Mark Ella, Mark Loane, Michael Lynagh, David Campese, John Eales and George Gregan, you can also find Matt Burke.
In 1999, as part of celebrations to mark 125 years of Australian Rugby, a panel of experts rated him the best full-back in Wallaby history. Now 42, the former New South Wales Waratahs back played 81 times in the famous green and gold jersey and is second only to Lynagh in points scored.
Burke played in three Rugby World Cups and made a huge contribution to the 1999 success, scoring 101 of Australia’s total haul of 221 points.
He was particularly instrumental in the crucial, latter stages of the tournament, knocking over eight penalties in the nail-biting semi-final win over South Africa, including two that sealed a passage to the final in extra-time.
Burke would go on to slot seven penalties as well as converting Ben Tune and Owen Finegan tries in the final as the Wallabies beat France 35-12 at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Burke, who now works as a media pundit Down Under, was at Nezesaussi in Manzil Downtown Dubai for the launch of this year’s World Cup and caught up with Sport360.
The World Cup is underway how excited are you and who are you looking forward to watching?
I’m watching with great interest. Yes, New Zealand are going to be the strongest team but the way the Aussies have gone this year hasn’t been too bad.
I love the way the Irish are playing at the moment too, with some good passion and skilful play. You can’t ever discount the French either, who always turn up for the World Cup and could chuck a spanner in the works, and then England, playing as the host nation. They’ve got the stronghold of Twickenham to back them so I think it’s going to be fantastic.
Having played in three World Cups and watched the last two, they are something to really look forward to and not necessarily the best team always wins.
Look at us in 1999. Yes, we were very strong but New Zealand were rated number one. England and New Zealand did win in 2003 and 2011, respectively, as number one teams but it throws up some curve balls and some question marks through pool matches to quarter-finals and semis. Nothing is taken for granted and that’s the great thing about a World Cup.
How are you feeling about Australia?
Excited. I think they’ve certainly grown this year, with Michael Cheika now on board and choosing his own team. We’re not looking too far ahead in this ‘Pool of Death’, they’re just concentrating on Fiji then Uruguay and then two big games to finish off with to get out of that pool. There’s the first spanner in the works. Who’s going to get out or who won’t get out? It will be one of the big dogs who won’t, so it’s an interesting situation.
Will Australia be daunted by being in the ‘Pool of Death’?
I don’t think so. The biggest thing about playing overseas for the Aussies is not playing the right kind of game. We’ve done that in the past when I was playing, trying to play a game that’s similar to home conditions. You might be playing at frosty, wet grounds, rain, wind and all of a sudden you’re not playing to the right conditions. That’s where Wales and England can gain that bit of an advantage.
My feeling is that the Aussies are getting to a point where they’re playing well, combining well and have options to choose from, which hasn’t been there for a while.
You put that in a big mixing bowl, with Cheika the chef mixing the ingredients and at the moment there’s anticipation every time they go out and play.
What are your feelings about your opponents. How will Wales’ injuries and England’s role as hosts affect them?
The chat from the team is one game at a time, which is a bit cliché, but it’s what they have to do. Get their combinations and best team ready for the England game.
You have to play every game on its merit to what the opposition supply. Wales have lost some key players, most notably Leigh Halfpenny, a dead-eye dick on the conversions and penalties, and he’ll be a massive loss. But these guys are good and strong enough.
They’ll find someone to take his place and a very capable goal-kicker too. Then England, you look at them and their scenario as a host nation. We found that out in 2003. There’s an expectation that the home team wants to go as far as they can, to make the final and win the whole thing.
They will have plenty of pressure on them from media and the rugby community to make sure they do well. It’s crystal ball stuff. Sadly one of the big teams in world rugby won’t be going through to the quarter-finals.
Who will you be looking forward to watching in an Australian shirt. Who can be the standout players?
There’s no doubting Israel Folau. The guy’s incredible, he can find the line and is exciting to watch and people naturally gravitate to him and watch his performances.
I’d like to see Matt Giteau come back and do well. He’s had his time in Toulon and played well and I imagine he would like to contribute on the big stage again. I like Matt Toomua. He’s playing in that 10 or 12 role. He’s physical. He gets up in the faces of the opposition and likes to dominate that area.
I also think the combination of David Pocock and Michael Hooper will dominate this World Cup. Two varying number sevens, both bring different attributes.
How good a job do you think Michael Cheika’s done since he’s come in?
He puts a lot of pride in playing for the jersey and one thing, which I’m not sure if you know about, was he rang the old boys of the 1999 team to ask us to deliver the news to the 2015 team that they were in the team.
I rang Israel Folau and Kurtley Beale and said, “look boys, congratulations, you’re in the World Cup squad”, which I thought was fantastic. It was funny with Kurtley, he said, “mate what’s this about, I’ve got to go”. I told him I just wanted a bit of a chat.
With Israel he let the call go through to voicemail about four times. I had to text him to say, “listen mate this is not a prank call, pick up the phone”. In that moment there he created a small bond between the two teams, which is a smart way to do it.
How far will they go and can they win it?
I reckon they can. I hope they can and yeah, I think they’ve got the skills to do it. The scrum has certainly got better this year. I would like to see that back line play together a little sharper. Certainly they have got the players to show some individual brilliance and get some yards. They’ve got a good mindset but of course you need a bit of luck along the way, to get a win over someone, maybe some losses for some other teams that changes the make-up of the pool.
The final is expected to be New Zealand versus someone so if that’s the case someone will have to play New Zealand on the way there.
Matt Burke was at Nezesaussi Grill at Manzil Downtown Dubai for the launch of this year’s Rugby World Cup. Nezesaussi will be screening all the games from England LIVE on their big screens.
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