From Wigan to Twickers FIRST NIGHT: BARRIE-JON MATHER

Woodward's latest recruit to England's cause brings a unique perspectiv e.
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Tom and Freda Mather were watching This Is Your Life on television when they decided that they liked the name of the man receiving the big red book. So they christened their son Barrie-Jon, making subtle changes from the name of the Wales and Lions stand-off, to protect the innocent. Barry John played in the second row for England Schools, true or false? False, of course, but phonetically true.

How do people address Barrie-Jon Mather? "Only my mum calls my Barrie- Jon and only when she's angry. Everybody calls me BJ." Last week BJ was called into the England squad at Roehampton after a handful of games at rugby union's senior level with Sale. "Have you seen him?" Clive Woodward, the England coach, asked, "He looks like Martin Johnson. I wouldn't like to play against him."

Mather, at 6ft 6in and 16st 4lb, is probably the biggest centre in the game. He is only 25 but his background is extraordinary.

Cue Barrie-Jon Mather This Is Your Life. You were born in Wigan but moved to Blackpool when your father, a teacher in psychology and sociology, got a post at Lytham- St Anne's high school. You attend Arnold School where you came under the influence of John Bevan, the former Wales and Warrington wing. "I can't tell you enough good things about John, he was brilliant. He taught me virtually everything I know."

In the sixth form you were selected for England Schools at union and made your debut at Twickenham. "But for a defeat to Wales in Colwyn Bay, we would have won the Grand Slam. We had a dodgy Belgian ref."

You got five A levels and at the age of 18 reverted to your first love, Wigan Rugby League Club. Do you remember this voice? Yes, it's your friendly South Sea Islander Tiny Solomona.

If the story of BJ's life is ever unreeled on TV, Tiny would be one of the guests behind the curtains. "There was nothing tiny about him," BJ said. "He was absolutely huge. In my first game for Wigan I caught the ball from the kick-off and Tiny hit me with everything he had. I went down like a sack of spuds and it felt as if my nose was all over my face." Not so much This Is Your Life as This Sporting Life, a gritty evocation (starring Richard Harris) of muck and brass knuckle dusters in rugby league land. Mather's nose, of course, was broken and he left the field for 10 minutes. Once the bleeding stopped he was back on.

"It was a big shock. You're encouraged to play through the pain because at the end of the day it's a job. If you don't do it somebody else will. It toughened me up. I was probably a soft young lad. There are some very hard men playing rugby league."

One minute he's playing schoolboy rugby, the next he's getting hit by a one-man island. "My grandad warned me of the reality. He introduced me to some world-class wrestlers and I found that one of the hardest sports of all. But it improves your tackling. It shows you the best way to get somebody down with the least effort."

Grandad was Fred who played centre for Wigan; father Tom was a prop in union (Orrell) and league (Blackpool Borough). When Mather played union for England Schools in 1991, he was a lock, packing alongside Simon Shaw, now a British Lion with Wasps. Wigan gradually converted him into a centre.

While Mather took a three-year degree course in Movement Science and PE at the University of Liverpool, he was a full-time pro at Wigan. "Rugby always came first. I had an understanding professor. As long as I got the notes afterwards I could catch up. League has an image of cloth caps, whippets and pigeon fanciers. It's nonsense."

At Liverpool University the beers were on Mather. In addition to his contract he was on pounds 350-a-week win bonus with Wigan. If they lost it was cut to pounds 50. They seldom lost. In 1994 he played at Wembley, a member of the Wigan team that beat Leeds in the Challenge Cup Final. "Unbelievable. There were 78,000 people and if a team-mate was 10 yards away you had to yell your lungs out to make yourself heard. It was all a blur. Wigan were so successful when I was there but it had stuff-all to do with me. It was such an honour to have played with those people."

Mather got his degree, helped in part by a run of injuries that kept him out of the game for 10 months. He had five operations; he had a shoulder, knee and finger reconstructed and, of course, he broke his nose six times.

"It was never a case of here's this rugby union public schoolboy, let's bash him. When the money's on the line you don't bother about individuals. If I'd been a bit older and smarter I'd have rested and I probably wouldn't have needed all those ops but I wanted to make my mark."

Mather then spent three years playing for the Western Reds in Perth, Western Australia. "I learnt an unbelievable amount. At Wigan we had about six really hard games a season. In Australia there was no let up. In the off-season you'd train three times a day in 40-degree heat. I was fit but knackered." And he had an operation for a double hernia.

While on holiday in New York he received a phone call. "They said 'Don't worry about reporting for training, there isn't any.' The Reds had folded. They had started off with crowds of 15,000 but Perth is big on Aussie Rules and we were having to give away more and more free tickets."

When Mather came home he joined Castleford, but when he watched a few matches of the union's Premiership it was Twickers rather than the twin towers that beckoned. Seven years ago he not only played alongside Shaw for England Schools but also with Tony Diprose, Richard Hill, Will Green, Tim Stimpson and Matt Dawson. "I looked at how well they were doing and it made rugby union a serious option, especially since it had become professional. Playing rugby is my job." He joined Sale in September and his first game, for the Second XV, resulted in a 50-0 defeat to Gloucester.

"He's got a lot of ability but he's got a long way to go," John Mitchell, the Sale coach and Woodward's assistant with England, said. When Mather came on against Saracens, Sale had two men in the sin-bin and were down to 13. "I felt at home."

Mather believes Sale pay a win bonus but is not sure. "We haven't won a league game that I've been involved in. The guys keep helping me and they haven't blown up yet when I've made a mistake. The biggest difference is that with union it's almost like having two teams with the forwards and backs having separate identities. In league all the players learn the same drills and everybody has to handle and run. Union is becoming more dynamic and skilful. The aim now is to keep the ball in the hands. I know I have a lot to learn but I want to see how far I can go."

When he turned up for Sale training last week people congratulated him. "What for?" Mather said. "When they told me I was in the England squad I thought they were taking the mickey." After betting pounds 10 that he wasn't in the squad, Mather discovered the truth on Ceefax. A few days later he had the T-shirt to prove it.

"I was really apprehensive. I didn't feel like I'd earned it and I was worried what the others thought of me. I don't know the thinking behind it but at least it gave me a chance to learn. That is all I ask." On the second day at Roehampton a leg injury prevented him from training. "Clive Woodward emphasised that there was no way I could take part if I wasn't fully fit," BJ said. "That's not the way I was brought up."

Perhaps it's just as well that Barry John, and not Bon Jovi, was the subject of This Is Your Life that fateful night.

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