Niko Matawalu was a master showman, a joy to watch - he’ll be missed by Glasgow Warriors

It is oddly appropriate that in this weirdest of years Glasgow’s chance of featuring in the final of the improvised Rainbow Cup should have ended with the award of four victory points to Benetton when Covid in the Ospreys’ camp caused their match to be called off. These four points in a match they might have lost took them clear of both Glasgow and Munster who, however, might have finished top if they beat Zebre this weekend.

Niko Matawalu scores a typically acrobatic try for Glasgow Warriors against Benetton at Scotstoun. Picture: Alan Harvey/SNS
Niko Matawalu scores a typically acrobatic try for Glasgow Warriors against Benetton at Scotstoun. Picture: Alan Harvey/SNS

It’s a disappointing conclusion for Glasgow though they have shown sufficient improvement in the last weeks to encourage them to look forward with more confidence than seemed likely to next season when there will be, one trusts, a return to normality in the autumn.

Meanwhile, there is a lot of coming and going at Scotstoun. Huw Jones is off to France and I’ve already written here about Tommy Seymour and Chris Fusaro who are retiring. Two other departures call for comment.

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One first became aware of Niko Matawalu when he played for Fiji against Scotland in the summer of 2012. Scotland won that match on what was an unusually successful three-match tour – they also beat Australia and Samoa – but Matawalu sparkled at scrum-half. He came to Glasgow that autumn and was an immediate delight. Fast, elusive, inventive, he baffled opponents and sometimes his own team-mates, whether at scrum-half or on the wing.. Week after week he seemed to pick up man-of-the-match awards. The crowds loved him. He was fun to watch, a master showman. But he was also mighty effective, conjuring tries from the most unlikely positions, and a master of the chip and regather.

Niko Matawalu gives his boots to young Glasgow Warriors fans after his final match for the club, against Leinster. Picture: Alan Harvey/SNS

Naturally clubs in England soon had their eye on him, but he was with Glasgow for three seasons, during which he scored more than 20 tries, before being lured to Bath. He didn’t have quite the same success there, or at Exeter subsequently, partly perhaps because both clubs were more wedded to their system, less comfortable with a free spirit. So he returned to Glasgow and, if his second spell wasn’t as brilliantly successful, he was still a joy to watch, though more and more often used only as a second-half replacement.

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Also bowing out of Scotstoun is Lee Jones. He was first capped for Scotland in 2012 when Andy Robinson was coach, but on account of injury he missed that year’s summer tour when we first took note of Matawalu. As a boy he had been a star scrum-half for Selkirk Youth Club, but was played on the left wing when he moved up to the Selkirk team and was an immediate success. As with Roger Baird whose career followed the same pattern - brilliant schoolboy No 9, prolific try-scoring wing as an adult– I often wondered how it would have been if he had stayed at scrum-half. He had a notable, if short, amateur career. I have an especially happy memory of a Border League final against Kelso at Langholm in which he scored a couple of tries, one brilliant solo one originating when he took a pass deep in the Selkirk 22.

It was obvious Selkirk would soon lose him to the professional game, but that injury in 2012 rather stalled his career when he had won four caps, and for some years he played more often for the Scotland Sevens team on the IRB circuit than in the 15-a-side game. He would indeed represent Scotland at Sevens in three Commonwealth Games. He fell out of favour at Edinburgh, where the coach, Alan Solomons, bluntly told him he preferred big wings, though at 5ft 10in or so and strongly built Lee had power as well as pace, and was never what you might call fragile.

Lee Jones at Glasgow was part of what must be as dangerous a back division as any Scottish club has ever fielded. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

Gregor Townsend brought him to Glasgow where he was part of what must be as dangerous a back division as any Scottish club, professional or amateur, has ever fielded. When Gregor became the national coach Lee would win another half-dozen Scottish caps. More injuries have interrupted his career and indeed he missed the best part of two years, 2019 and 2020. If, returning this season, he may have lost a little pace, he compensated by alertness and the experience which has enabled him to become an astute reader of the game.

I don’t know whether he is retiring or thinking of coaching or perhaps looking to an entirely different career, perhaps putting his degree in Mechanical Engineering to use, but watching him as he has matured from his dashing youth has given me a great deal of pleasure. There have been few more wholehearted players and it was pleasing that in 2017 he was named Glasgow’s Player of the Season.

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