Holm Truths: Jimmy Cowan - 'I loved life of bones, beers'
Skinning cattle or the best young rugby talent in Southland, it was all the same to teenage Jimmy Cowan.
The gritty Kiwi half-back explained how he made rugby his day job, plotting a course to take in 51 caps, a World Cup win, and a relocation across the globe.
JIMMY Cowan cleaved the bone clean from the lamb, and waited for the next carcass.
Quitting time at Mataura Freezing Works meant rugby training, so he cleaned himself up, desperately trying to shake the smell, and sped across town.
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Saturday would be match day, followed by a few beers with his team-mates.
This was Cowan's first two years out of Gore High School, qualifying in the meat-packing trade and slugging it out in men's rugby.
Part of the 30-year-old still cannot fathom how he swapped one production line for another, to graduate from the All Blacks junior sides and win the World Cup.
As he settles into life at Kingsholm thousands of miles from home, the former Southland and Otago Highlander keeps pinching himself.
Many of his oldest friends still play for Mataura, and still work in the meat business.
Cowan thinks any of them could have ended up in his sponsored boots – but along with a slice of luck, he still had to graft every bit as hard on the field as in the workplace.
"I left school at 17 and went straight into the workforce," he explained. "I went straight to the Mataura Freezing Works. That was a big trade for the town.
"I gained qualifications in removing the bones from sheep, lamb and cattle.
"I did that for two years, playing for Mataura Rugby Club at the same time.
"I loved it. I was playing rugby in my spare time with a good group of mates, enjoying a beer at the weekend.
"Things started to get serious when I made the New Zealand Under-19s side.
"I didn't know how to train my body, so when I joined up with them, I was told to hit some tough fitness targets pretty quickly.
"I'd never gone to an academy, and the schools didn't have the kind of gyms they do nowadays.
"I learned the hard way, because I was told hit the targets or you're not in.
"So I put my head down and managed it – it was the first time I'd played overseas, and we went to Chile.
"From there I moved into the New Zealand Colts side.
"I was very fortunate. A lot of my mates still play but they didn't have that luck that I did.
"In saying that ,there was also a lot of hard work, though, too, there's been a lot of grind.
"But I do count myself lucky.
"It's been a hell of a ride when I sit here in Gloucester and think about it, on the other side of the world trying to work out how I'm all this way from home.
"Rugby's great these days as an opportunity that's out there for young people to experience things like this."
Strong performances in two pivotal trial matches catapulted Cowan from Mataura to Southland's provincial squad.
Suddenly he was not lining up alongside his mates, but men whose careers he had followed almost all his life.
He thrived so much that he built his own house in Invercargill he never envisaged leaving.
But winning the World Cup closed off a personal ambition shared by a nation, and Cowan set about making the move to Gloucester for this campaign.
Lifting the Webb Ellis trophy might be world rugby's pinnacle, but Cowan is not motivated by success alone.
Relishing his Kingsholm switch, he continued: "I was playing club rugby, the premier competition in Southland, they had an eye on me in that.
"And from there I made the Southland country side. The best of the country rugby teams play the best of the Southland town sides.
"It's like a Southland trial, so I played in that and did well and I ended up getting picked for a Southland invitational team.
"I guess it was a bit like England Saxons for the region – they put on a fixture giving guys a chance to show what they can do.
"I got picked for that invitational team and ended up playing against a near full-strength Otago side, against guys like Kelvin Middleton and Brendan Laney.
"After that I was picked for the Southland team, and things just moved on from there.
"And from there I got picked for the Southland team.
"I was born in Gore and raised in Mataura, so I was travelling to Invercargill for age group rugby with Southland.
"I didn't move down there until I signed for them at 19, but I ended up living there for nearly 12 years.
"I built a house down there in 2008 and that was home for more than a decade.
"It was such a fantastic time but after the World Cup I knew I needed a change and a new challenge.
"It was games like Bath and Leicester that were the reason I came to Gloucester.
"Guys like me play the game for the big tests, the ones that people really care about.
"I'm looking forward to the challenges ahead and I'm expecting a hell of a ride.
"I'd say I'm a pretty straightforward bloke, and I like my rugby the same way too.
"I'm here to put my best foot forward, help out the young guys and play some good, hard rugby – rugby that I can be proud of."
Personal pride is just the door to the freezer. Every time he takes the Kingsholm turf, Cowan is representing those boys in the Mataura cold rooms.