Kiwi Matt McIlwrick finding his way at Raiders

CHRIS BARCLAY
Last updated 05:25 12/04/2013
Matt McIlwrick
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STEPPING UP: Matt McIlwrick in action for the Raiders.

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Matt McIlwrick got his foot through the door at the Canberra Raiders when he arrived from Christchurch to board with David Furner.

But although the head coach and his family were accommodating when the aspiring professional footballer settled into the Australian capital, there was never any guarantee he would avoid the chores associated with making first grade.

So it took until last Sunday's upset of the Sydney Roosters until he started his first NRL game.

McIlwrick was the final ball carrier in the Raiders 24-22 upset of one of the Premiership favourites though it was just as satisfying to be on Canberra Stadium for kick-off.

The back-up hooker was promoted from the bench when Glen Buttriss succumbed to a shoulder injury - and in a promising sign for his future McIlwrick was picked ahead of former Kangaroos, Queensland and New Zealand Warriors utility Shaun Berrigan.

McIlwrick was 16 when he joined the Raiders, he made his NRL debut last year at age 20 and might finally be coming of age as a first grader about 12 months later.

The specialist dummy half made four appearances in 2012 and matches that figure when he lines up against Nathan Friend when Canberra host the Warriors during round six action tomorrow night.

McIlwrick navigated a measured pathway -- not the fast track -- after being scouted by the Raiders while playing for the Halswell Hornets: Harold Matthews Cup, SG Ball, the NYC and NSW Cup with Mounties.

He made his debut against Cronulla almost 12 months ago and although McIlwrick has only been used sporadically to this point, there are no complaints, no Josh Dugan-style dissent.

"If you said four or five years ago when I turned up at the club that at 21 I'd be playing first grade, I'd take that hands down," he told Fairfax Media.

"I've exceeded all my expectations. Hopefully I can keep doing it and cement a spot in the side."

Although McIlwrick currently benefits from Buttriss being on the mend - and Travis Waddell's pre-season transfer to Newcastle last month -- starting ahead of 232-game veteran Berrigan is a merit-based decision by Furner.

"I learned a lot off Travis, I've also learned a lot off Shaun and Glen and now I've been given an opportunity to start I've got to keep learning off the senior guys and improve my game."

Although Berrigan and Buttriss are in the stands McIlwrick this weekend, McIlwrick will have another seasoned campaigner close at hand for advice when he faces the Warriors for the first time.

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Terry Campese has only played eight games for the Raiders since tearing an anterior cruciate ligament in 2010, but his experience should be invaluable despite him languishing on the periphery for the best part of two years.

The 28-year-old club captain has been named on an extended bench and is sure to make an emotional comeback and step in for starting halves Sam Williams and Josh McCrone at some point.

"He'll be itching to get back out there. "He's such a great leader, he'll give us more confidence," McIlwrick said.

The rookie could find himself in the potentially tricky position of regulating the ball heading Campese's way - a safety valve to ensure the five-eighth doesn't exert too much pressure on that reconstructed knee.

Not that McIlwrick anticipates a clash of personalities.

"He's a natural leader, he's done all the training. He'll naturally take over and call everything. It'll be up to him how much ball he gets."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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