Rugby League


Canberra Raiders utility Matt McIlwrick eyes specialist back-row spot

He has played most of his NRL games at hooker, but Raiders utility Matt McIlwrick wants to become a specialist back-rower.

McIlwrick has been thrust into the No.13 jersey vacated by the injured Shaun Fensom for the second straight week in Saturday's match with the St George Illawarra Dragons at Canberra Stadium.

It will be just the 23-year-old's fourth NRL game of the season and his first back-to-back appearances after starting at lock in last weekend's 18-10 loss to Parramatta in Darwin.

With Fensom likely to miss the start of next year while recovering from a knee reconstruction, lock looms as McIlwrick's best chance for a spot in the Raiders.

There will be plenty of competition at hooker next year, after English recruit Josh Hodgson joins Glen Buttriss and Kurt Baptiste, who is in negotiations with the Raiders for a new contract.

McIlwrick says his long-term future will be better served by a permanent move.


"I'm a bit smaller than most other blokes, but I enjoy the roughness of it and it kind of suits me a lot better than hooker,'' said McIlwrick, who stands 182 centimetres and weighs 95 kilograms.

"All you have to do is run and tackle and you don't have to think too much. If I just have to focus on one role, it will eventually improve my game at lock.''

Fensom will be sidelined for up to nine months after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the 54-18 loss to the New Zealand Warriors in round 21.

He is one of the leaders in the NRL when it comes to the number of tackles each game and is a two-time Mal Meninga medallist.

"[Fensom] has that great workload, so we almost need two of us to make up for him,'' McIlwrick said. ''I don't know how long Shaun is going be out with his knee, so I've got to make the most of this opportunity.

"I've got to learn as much as possible as I can in that position and put my best case forward for next year.''

From Christchurch, McIlwrick represented the Junior Kiwis in 2012 and made his first-grade debut for the Raiders the same year. After four appearances in his rookie season, McIlwrick added another eight games to his tally last year.

He has had to bide his time in the NSW Cup with Mounties this season, his three games coming in round three (against the Titans), round 10 (Panthers) and last week (Eels).

''It is hard having such a big break in between, but I'm always happy to pull on the green jersey,'' McIlwrick said. "We want to pay our loyal fans back. We haven't had a great season, but we want to show the fans we're still trying and still giving our all.''