Return of Glasgow talisman Niko Matawalu welcome

Niko Matawalu will start on the wing for Glasgow. Picture: SNS
Niko Matawalu will start on the wing for Glasgow. Picture: SNS
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ON A blistering hot day on 16 June, 2012, in front of an enthusiastic crowd, Fiji hosted Scotland at Churchill Park, Lautoka.

The visitors seemed in control of what looked like a tricky encounter as they eased into a 27-11 lead early in the second half. Still, the Fijian scrum-half that day was the stand-out player on the field and his sniping runs and Fred Astaire footwork were terrorising the Scottish defence. Two tries later and the match was in the balance, with the visitors’ lead whittled down to two points and the momentum with the home side.

That was when the rugby world witnessed one of those brainstorms that sometimes afflict coaches. To the relief of the Scots, the Fijian scrum-half was replaced, subbed off the field. Just when they looked like putting the frighteners on Scotland, Fiji benched the best player in the park. The Scots breathed a sigh of relief and finished up comfortable winners.

Upon the tourists’ return home, the kettle was barely on before some bright spark at Murrayfield picked up the phone and enquired as to Niko Matawalu’s availability? We know all too well why Glasgow chose him, but why on earth did someone from the other side of the world choose Glasgow?

“All the rugby players [in Fiji], they want a professional team and professional rugby,” says the Warriors scrum-half, who was serving in the Fijian Navy at the time. “I didn’t think I was coming to Glasgow to play after that game against Scotland. I had a few other clubs who wanted me, but I just wanted to come to Glasgow to sign because I had not been here.

“I’d been to all the other places, I had never been to Glasgow so that’s why [I chose it). I had been to Scotland and played in Edinburgh so I knew it was very cold but I love it, I don’t care.”

His grasp of English is good but not yet fully fluent and it must be a little daunting to speak a second language in what was his first ever press conference with a dozen or so microphones under his nose. In contrast, the little Fijian buzzbomb is poetry in motion on the field of play. Rugby is a language he not only understands but has mastered, fully fluent and hugely confident.

Last season Glasgow almost doubled their league tally of tries to 66 at the rate of three per match. Matawalu scored eight of them himself, second only to winger DTH van der Merwe, but his scoring is only half the story: he is primarily a facilitator, someone who makes it possible for other people to shine.

He is a constant threat around the base of the scrum and even when he is scragged he has the extraordinary upper body strength that allows him to wriggle out of trouble. By keeping the closest defenders honest, he makes space out wide for others to exploit. He is the oil that makes Glasgow’s attacking game operate smoothly and when he is on song Gregor Townsend’s team are capable of belting out rugby’s equivalent of the Hallelujah Chorus.

The player insists that he can play any position in the back line from nine to 15 – “I don’t mind. If I am on the pitch I will enjoy it” – but the worry is that, starting on the wing this afternoon, he is too far from the action to weave his usual magic.

Matawalu and his magic have missed most of this season. He broke a metatarsal in his foot in pre-season and he relates a nice story of his mother and her friends back home praying for his recovery after showing her the injury on Skype. In his absence the club has relied on defence rather than offence to win matches.

In five league games to date Glasgow have conceded just two tries (bizarrely, both came from Zebre) but they have scored just nine themselves. It’s not too shabby, but it is well below the ratio they managed last season and it is far fewer than their nearest opponents.

In the bear pit that is Stade Mayol this afternoon, Glasgow will need all aspects of their game to work – attack, defence and everything else in between – because Toulon are sure to score points in their own backyard. That is one of the reasons Townsend has rushed Matawalu back into the starting team. The coach must have been tempted to play him at nine, but in the ongoing absence of Stuart Hogg, the New Zealander Sean Maitland starts at full-back and the little Fijian takes his place on the wing. Matawalu is expected to move to nine some time this afternoon but the starting scrum-half, Henry Pyrgos, may possess Glasgow’s most reliable boot, so it won’t happen if things are neck and neck on the score board.

The size of the task in hand is every bit as huge as the opposition this afternoon – an opening tie against the European champions on their own patch – but for all his lack of inches, Matawalu seems utterly unfazed by what lies ahead.

“It means everything for us,” he says. “For the team, for the management, for the supporters too. It’s the first Heineken Cup game and they [Toulon] are the defending champions, so it will be tough. Firstly, they are defending champions. Secondly, the game will be held there [in France] so it will be hard to play there. We will do whatever it takes.

“For this game, it is a different level, Europe, so everyone wants to win. Everyone will still want to go over to the first game, to Toulon, and everyone will be looking forward to pick up [points] for the team.

“They have two hands, we have two hands; they have two legs, we have two legs. Maybe the [greater] experience will be there for them, but nowadays everyone knows their strengths and weaknesses, so we will see what happens on Sunday.”

Someone asks him what had surprised him about his new club and he pauses to think about the question for a few moments before responding.

“I played in Fiji for how many years and they didn’t shout my name at the ground, but I thank all the supporters here for shouting, ‘Niko, Niko’. It was a surprise, yeah!”

If that chant can be heard amongst all the hullabaloo at the Stade Mayol this afternoon, it means that Matawalu and Glasgow will be doing just fine.