Johnny Matthews: How golden globetrotting summer culminated in Scotland Rugby World Cup cap chance
He was probably due some quiet time but when he was out walking the dogs with his new wife Mel in Fife at the weekend he got the call that turned his summer upside down. It was John Dalziel, the Scotland forwards coach, imploring Matthews to get himself to France ASAP. The squad were in the throes of another hooker crisis and his presence was required at the Rugby World Cup.
The following morning the Glasgow Warriors forward was on a plane to Nice and sat in the stadium that night as Scotland defeated Tonga 45-17. Now, at the age of 30, he is in line to make his international debut when the Scots play Romania in Lille on Saturday in their penultimate group match of the tournament.
“I’m buzzing to be here,” said Matthews. “I was very shocked to get the call but I’m obviously delighted and just looking to throw my hat into the ring to try to get some games while I’m here. I was in Elie with my wife and some good friends when I got the call from John. We were taking the dogs for a walk and when I saw John’s number pop up I knew he wasn’t phoning for a catch-up. He said, ‘how quickly can you get to Nice?’ and now I’m here. My boots were at Scotstoun, so I had to shoot over there and get them. I then quickly packed and got on a 6am flight on Sunday morning.”
Matthews’ journey is a remarkable one. Born in Liverpool, and a committed Evertonian, he qualifies for Scotland through his mum Elaine who is from Blantyre. He came through the club game on both sides of the border and is now on the brink of becoming Scotland’s fourth hooker at a World Cup where the position seems cursed.
He got the call after Stuart McInally suffered the misfortune of injuring his neck in training. The unlucky McInally, who has now gone home without playing, was himself flown over when David Cherry was ruled out with concussion after falling down stairs at the team hotel. Ewan Ashman also suffered a concussion, from a training collision, but is fit again, while Fraser Brown would almost certainly have been flown in had he not picked up a serious knee injury at the end of the season. George Turner, the first choice No 2, is the only one to escape a mishap and Gregor Townsend will be praying it stays that way. Turner is likely to be rested this weekend, with one eye on the showdown with Ireland on October 7, opening the door for Matthews and Ashman to feature against Romania, with the former in line for his debut after a stellar season with Glasgow in which he scored 13 tries in 19 matches. He credits Warriors coach Franco Smith for improving his game.
“He certainly made me a fitter player, and a better player,” said Matthews. “He’s brilliant. He improved everyone in the squad last year. That was clear to see from where we were the previous year, to where we were last season. He’s really driven up the standards and made sure we’re all fit. He gave me a nice phone call when I got the call-up as well. He was delighted for me and hopes I take the opportunity.”
Smith is a notoriously hard taskmaster, particularly when it comes to fitness, and Matthews managed to balance his busy summer with making sure he would be ready for the domestic campaign. “I tried to keep myself in a shape that wasn’t round over the summer,” he smiled. “I didn’t want to come into Franco’s pre-season unfit.
“To be fair, I’ve had a good summer. I got married, came out here to see my best man, Archie Russell, so I was here for a week. I went to Frankfurt on my stag-do and went to Crete on honeymoon, so I’ve made the most of the 13 weeks off from Franco. We got married just outside St Andrews in July, which was fantastic. To win a World Cup cap after that, it wouldn’t be bad. That would be the perfect summer if I was able to cap it off by playing for Scotland in a World Cup.”
Matthews had his first stab at pro rugby with Rotherham Titans back in 2014 in the English Championship. Opportunities were limited so he returned to Sedgley Park in Bury, Greater Manchester, where he enjoyed a couple of prolific campaigns either side of his Rotherham spell. He moved north to join Boroughmuir in 2017 and was the Scottish Premiership's top try scorer for the 2018-19 season. Paul Larter, an analyst at Edinburgh Rugby, liked what he saw and Matthews was brought in as cover at the pro team while their big guns were on Six Nations duty. Larter has since joined Romania and will be part of their backroom team against Scotland on Saturday. Matthews, meanwhile, moved to Glasgow ahead of the 2019-20 campaign and won a full-time contract.
“I never thought when I was playing for Boroughmuir that I’d be playing in a World Cup a few years later,” said Matthews. “I was just trying to enjoy it there and take an opportunity if it presented itself, which luckily it did for Glasgow.”
Matthews has thrived at Glasgow where the three hookers drive each other on. Having Turner and Brown as competition has raised his game and he has more than held his own, scoring 24 tries in 50 appearances. He played for Scotland A against Chile last summer and although a full cap remained tantalisingly out of reach, he kept the faith.
“You never say never - you just keep playing well for Glasgow, keep scoring and you’ve always got a chance I suppose.” Now he aims to take it.
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