Attack-minded Bristol tyro keen to retain identity whilst studying under million pound man Charles Piutau
Fresh off the back of his starting Premiership debut, exciting young Bristol fullback Mat Protheroe is relishing time spent alongside million-pound Premiership man and former All Black Charles Piutau, but is keen to emulate Saracens' playmaking fullback Alex Goode
Floating beneath the surface of dramatic last-minute winning penalties and the eye-catching, outrageous no-look passes of the Finn Russell and Danny Cipriani variety engrossing we fans of the highest level of professional rugby, the next generation of potential sporting greats are going about their work. Agonisingly close to standing shoulder to shoulder with their superstar teammates, the noises these young men and women are making on the training field are yet to be heard, muffled in the protecting embrace of the coaches guiding them through their player pathway, away from the spotlight.
One such rising star is Bristol Bears fullback Mat Protheroe. The Welshman has scarcely been seen on Premiership fields this season following an ACL injury sustained last year and has been toiling away in rehab rooms and analysis meetings whilst in the shadow of Premiership Superstar and former All Black Charles Piutau.
Last weekend, nineteen rounds into the current season, Protheroe earned his starting debut in Bristol’s dramatic last-minute victory over reigning champions Saracens. The Swansea-born youngster displayed glimpses of his attacking potential at Ashton Gate, arguably outplaying the league’s form fullback, former England man Alex Goode.
Speaking to the Rugby Magazine about his belated Premiership breakthrough, the man destined to fill Piutau’s sizable All Black and boots said: “Obviously pre-season I was still out with my ACL, that was a tough time. But since coming back I’ve managed to get a few starts in the Challenge Cup or Prem Cup and stuff like that.
“A few of the other fifteen options have been injured, so I’m just really happy that the opportunity came my way and to get my debut start. So yeah, I was happy.”
While 22-year-old Protheroe benefitted from Piutau’s latest injury, his third this season, he was full of praise for the New Zealander, both on and off the training paddock.
“Obviously it’s a cliché to hear a lot of young boys saying ‘I’m in the team with this player and it’s unbelievable to work off him’, but I think it’s more what he’s [Piutau] like as a person,” Protheroe said.
“He epitomises what rugby is. He’s such a humble bloke. He’s got time for everyone and it’s the same with his brother Siale. When you’re on the pitch he’s the first one there to try and help me improve, ‘try this, try that’, just to study someone like this is class. So you don’t mind when he’s a good person, if he’s a bit of a tit, you don’t really listen as much do you.”
Tits aside for a second, it’s plain to see that, while he is keen to avoid the usual cliché of a star-struck youngster, Protheroe is in awe of teammate and is making the most of his time spent training alongside one of the most well-rounded fullbacks of the modern era.
However, Protheroe is also his own man and is plainly aware of the fact that his development is far more complex than a simple copy and paste job. Having spent time at fly-half in years gone by, the former Hartpury College student believes he draws a closer comparison to last weekend’s opposite man, Goode.
“I don’t want to be Charles as a player, because I’m my own player,” Protheroe said. “But if I can try and take anything he has and sprinkle it on top of my game, I’ll be happy.
“I know people would say I’m probably contradicting myself there because they say that I’m quick, but I like to get my hands on the ball and maybe playmake a bit more.
“We’re very similar in that we’re quite attack-minded, but obviously having grown up as a ten I try more that second-receiver role rather than in the wide channels.”
As is seemingly tradition when speaking to a young player born outside of England currently honing their trade in the Premiership, the question of whether Protheroe has nailed his colours to either the Welsh, his country of birth, or English mast arises.
Addressing the often-headline-grabbing matter, Protheroe said: “Yeah, obviously I went to Hartpury when I was sixteen and haven’t left England since and I’ve played the England age grade stuff for 18s and 20s. And I was very grateful for that, but I don’t think I’m at a level of performance yet to even be thinking about that kind of stuff [Test rugby].
“If it does come my way, then fine, but I’m just happy to try and become a Prem regular eventually. If anything comes from that then great, but I’ll cross that bridge when it comes to it.”
The Welsh accent may betray his current neutral stance as far as his senior international ambitions go, but Protheroe must first tackle the task at hand, securing regular Premiership game time. Attaining these playing minutes is no mean feat with a fit Piutau in town, as is the competition between Protheroe and the rest of Bristol’s fullback options.
With current injuries to Piutau, Luke Daniels, Ryan Edwards and Luke Morahan – and injuries in midfield that prevents Piers O’Conor from shifting into the backfield – we’re sure to see plenty of the blond-haired attacking tyro during the final three rounds of Premiership action this season. An exciting prospect for more than just the Ashton Gate faithful.