x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Willie Mason 'out of comfort zone' in rugby union debut for Barbarians

The former Australian rugby league international makes his high-profile debut against England at Twickenham on Sunday.

Willie Mason,s een here training with the Barbarians today, is the latest code-breaker in rugby.
Willie Mason,s een here training with the Barbarians today, is the latest code-breaker in rugby.

LONDON // Willie Mason makes his high-profile debut in rugby union at Twickenham on Sunday acknowledging he will be way out of his comfort zone in his first match in the 15-man game since his school days.

The controversial former Australia rugby league star has been named on the bench for the famous invitational side the Barbarians for their non-cap international against England.

The 31-year-old Mason has not played a competitive union game since his leaving in 1997 and is not expecting an easy ride against fringe England players who are looking to prove their worth to selectors ahead of the rugby World Cup staged in the Autumn.

However, he is confident he will not be embarrassed at the ground he calls "the home of rugby".

"I've thrown myself in the deep end by playing with the Baa-Baas," the New Zealand-born Mason said after his first training session with them today. "I just can't wait to get out there. I'm way out of my comfort zone but I haven't been this excited for a game for a while.

"Obviously I'm not going to go into the game thinking I'm going to get man of the match award or anything, but I've got high expectations of myself as a player and a competitor."

Mason played 24 Tests for Australia's league side, scoring seven tries, and made his name as a destructive runner and tough tackler in the club game with the Canterbury Bulldogs and the Sydney Roosters.

But he also made headlines off the pitch for various disciplinary problems, with both Australian clubs fining him for alcohol-related incidents. He eventually moved to the English Super League but just six months into a three-year deal at Hull KR, he agreed to switch codes to join the French Top 14 side Toulon.

The move to union, something which he said he had "chickened out" of doing for some years, appears to have given him a new lease of life and he believes he can make the transition.

"I've played in plenty of big games — it's not like I'm someone who doesn't know how to catch a ball, run, or tackle, which is the basics of rugby," said Mason.

"Whichever job the coach gives me, I'll go out there and do my best. I'm not going to go out there and be bullied around. I think I'll hold my own regardless if I'm playing a national side like England, which I have full respect for. But I am a competitor myself."

Mason, who is set to start his union career as an inside-centre despite playing in the forwards in league, said he sounded out another controversial code-switcher — Sonny Bill Williams — for advice ahead of his move to the 15-a-side format.

The two powerful line-breakers are good friends from their NRL (National Rugby League) days in Australia and Mason said he would not be in the position he was if it was not for Williams making the switch to union, where he was excelling as an established member of the New Zealand squad.

"I've been stalking him ... asking him what the transition is like mentally, physically, what you do on the field, all the variables in the game that you have to get used to," Mason said. "We've played in the same position in league and won a lot of things and played against each other.

"Sonny has probably opened up a lot of doors for me. I don't think I'd have been given this opportunity if Sonny didn't open those doors up initially. A couple of years ago, he said, 'Right, I'm going to union.' He made a harsh decision. But he's going to be the face of the World Cup now."