Burke still soars with Falcons after kicking the injury habit

An Australian Abroad: Ex-Wallaby leaves his painful 'Jonny days' behind
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The Newcastle Falcon who kicked his country to the World Cup was not quite in the best of health. "Excuse me, I've got a cough," he said, apologising for the splutter and the hint of a croak as he took his seat in the Kingston Park clubhouse.

It is little wonder that Rob Andrew has cloaked him in cotton wool these past two weekends, keeping him on the bench for the European Challenge Cup tie away to L'Aquila eight days ago, despite having to field two flankers as wing three-quarters, and naming him as a replacement for the return match today.

In his season and a half on Tyneside, Matt Burke has become as precious an asset to Newcastle as the other Falcon who kicked his country to the Webb Ellis Cup has been a costly absentee for the club.

At the same time as Andrew and his staff have been patiently nursing Jonny Wilkinson back from his latest physical breakdown, they have been busy applying the reins to Burke - for the happy reason that he has been so consistently fit and in such peak form.

In 33 appearances as a Falcon since the start of last season, the former Wallaby has scored 16 tries and 208 points. With progress in Europe virtually assured, Andrew wants to make sure that his Rolls-Royce of a full-back is still purring along nicely for the Premiership tootle down the road to Leeds on 27 December.

In the 16 months since he swapped his view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge for that of the smaller-scale construction across the Tyne (upon which his hometown's trademark crossing was modelled), Newcastle's No 15 has been in tip-top condition.

But with his own history of malfunctions, Burke knows all about the kind of spanners that have been thrown into the works of the points-scoring Wilkinson machine.

"I've had both my shoulders reconstructed, plus both knees and an ankle," the 32-year-old veteran recounted. "It's a difficult time when you're out injured, and I've seen Jonny's frustrations over the time I've been here. For someone who lives for playing the game, it must be devastating for him.

"I dislocated my shoulder quite severely in August 1998 and it still gives me a little bit of trouble. I've got to make sure I work on it. That's the biggest thing I've learned in my time as a professional rugby player: you've got to keep on top of your injuries and work on them. You've got to get your injury management right. Don't just wait to get your treatment when you're injured; get it before you get to the stage where you're going to be injured."

Such precaution has spared Burke the kind of groin surgery that has been responsible for the latest hiatus in Wilkinson's career. When he pushed himself to the brink of similar damage a few years back, he cut down on the kicking practice and escaped the surgeon's knife. Now the workaholic Wilkinson has resolved to reduce his manic kicking load when he gets back into the swing of training.

"Yeah, I saw that quote the other day," Burke said. "I used to do so much kicking, I'd limp off the training field. When you're young you can kick 100 balls in an afternoon and not worry about it. If I kicked 100 balls now, I wouldn't be able to walk for a week. But you have your injury and it then becomes quality rather than quantity.

"You've just got to learn that if you don't hit the ball well you have to walk away and use the mental side of things, rather than the physical side, to get you over that hump. Once you realise these injuries can keep you out for a long period, you curb what's causing them and get yourself focused on being more efficient. You're still getting the result and you're still doing the work."

At the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on 7 November 1999, Burke's right boot did its work and was largely responsible for securing the 35-12 result that won the World Cup final for Australia against France. He was gracefully smooth under the ultimate in sporting pressure, kicking seven penalties and two conversions for a personal tally of 25 points.

Four years later, he was a suited Wallaby squad member sitting in the stands in his hometown Telstra Stadium when Wilkinson became an English national hero for kicking 10 points fewer in a World Cup final, the last three of them albeit in more dramatic fashion.

Back in 1999, there was a ticker tape parade for the Wallabies along George Street in Sydney. For Burke, though, there were no eulogies like that penned for the 2003 World Cup winner by the poet laureate, Andrew Motion, titled A Song for Jonny:

"Jonny, the power of your boot

And the accurate heart-stopping route

Of your goal as it ghosts

Through Australian posts

Is a triumph we gladly salute."

Jonny's boot has yet to send another goal ghosting through the posts of England's opponents, although at 26 he has time to regain his powers and overtake the fellow Falcon who stands one place and 61 points ahead of him in the all-time international scoring charts.

As for Burke, he has kicked his 878th and last point for the Wallabies. The affable, quietly spoken Aussie is pondering whether to hang up his boots for good at the end of the season - or to take up the option of another year's contract on Tyneside.

"I'm asking myself if I'm enjoying the game, if my body's OK, and if I want to keep going for another season," he said.

The followers of the Falcons, and of the English club game, will be hoping the answers are yes, yes and yes - another positive three points from the peerless Matt Burke.