Niko Matawalu: Fijian fires Glasgow into play-offs

Niko Matawalu scored one and helped set up three of Glasgow tries. Picture: SNS
Niko Matawalu scored one and helped set up three of Glasgow tries. Picture: SNS
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‘WE ARE all Thatcher’s children”, or so we were informed last week. Not me, and not for any political convictions, but I was always one of Walt’s weans, reared on an undiluted diet of Disney films which is why I was thinking of Dumbo on Friday night.

In that cartoon, the Jim Crow chorus sings a much-loved song: “I been done seen about everything when I see an elephant fly”.

Admittedly it’s not quite in the same league as a flying elephant but on Friday evening I’ve been done seen an international scrum-half who can’t pass the mustard never mind a rugby ball. Against the Ospreys, Glasgow’s very own little warrior Niko Matawalu knocked on at the base of the scrum, two maybe three times, his service could be timed with a sundial and he adopted the scattergun approach when it came to finding his fly-half.

The Fijian obviously reckoned that if he fired the ball in the approximate direction of the receivers lined up in the Glasgow midfield, the law of averages alone suggested that one on them would pluck it out of the air. Sometimes he was even right. The rest of the time the ball bobbled along the floor with two of three players bent over in hot pursuit like they were herding hens. It was enough to have the scrum-half snobs reaching for the smelling salts, and spare a thought for poor Henry Pyrgos who was bench bound despite boasting a better service when blindfold than his rival.

And still Matawalu was the best player in Scotstoun Stadium by a country mile. On a night when Glasgow had their fair share of heroes in a 35-17 win which secured their place in the play-offs, the little man stood head and shoulders above peers and rivals alike because he is a game changer. It’s not just the X-factor, when he is on song Matawalu brings to bear an entire alphabet of excellence.

In modern rugby, approximately 99 per cent of all attacks fail. After battering away at the wall of defenders with all the incision of jelly, the ball is recycled umpteen times before someone makes a mistake or just kicks it away. The Ospreys did just that in the first half, running through more than 20 phases without making a single yard of progress towards the Glasgow try line.

If their offence was hampered by missing personnel, at least the Ospreys could fall back on the best defence in the entire league. Before Friday’s game they had conceded just 16 tries in 20 matches at a rate of 0.8 tries per match. Glasgow scored five on Friday and Matawalu was heavily involved in almost all.

His pass found Ryan Grant for the first try and his clever chip kick into space found Sean Maitland for the second. Then a trademark searing break at the base of the breakdown sparked a contender for the try of the month award after a flip out of the back of Matawalu’s hand found Moray Low. The big prop’s pass to Graeme Morrison looked forward but the centre’s very own “Toony flip” found Grant who scored his second try.

After the break, Matawalu scored himself with a quickly taken tap penalty that left his opposite number Kahn Fotuali’i for dead. He dabbed the ball down on the try line with what looked like insouciance, leaving three defenders sprawled on the turf wondering what the hell had just happened.

Glasgow’s fifth try, by substitute winger DTH van der Merwe, was the only one not to have Matawalu’s paw prints all over it.

Thanks to that erratic service, the Fijian can be a liability, as he was a few weeks back against Leinster who closed the space around the breakdown, targeted him relentlessly and capitalised on his many mistakes. When Matawalu sports the No.9 shirt, Glasgow fans are on the edge of their seat because he flip-flops between the audacious and the atrocious with apparent ease. He makes the easy stuff look laboured but does the tricky bits without breaking sweat.

“We know that if we want to win this tournament we need to be clinical. It is cutting out those little errors so we are squeaky clean for every minute of the last games we have left,” said Sean Lamont, more in hope than expectation it has to be said. The leggy winger was at his aggressive best on Friday and he was asked what had changed at Glasgow in the seven years he has plied his trade elsewhere.

“I’ll tell you what hasn’t changed because that is probably easier,” Lamont replied. “Glasgow have always had a great team spirit, the boys are willing to do everything for each other and that’s something that we still have today. That’s what makes the difference.”

Well, that and Glasgow’s favourite Fijian.