Fagerson braced for daunting duel with ‘close to perfect’ Vunipola

Champions Cup clash against Saracens offers Glasgow Warriors youngster an opportunity to test himself against one of the game's greats

Matt Fagerson on the attack against Edinburgh last season. Image: ©INPHO/Craig Watson.

MATT Fagerson has taken more or less everything in his stride so far in his precocious career, but today he faces a task that would be daunting for the most experienced player, never mind one who only turned 20 a couple of months ago.

When Saracens take to the field against Glasgow Warriors in this afternoon’s Champions Cup match, they will have real quality throughout their team – you do not win back-to-back European titles otherwise. But the biggest threat to the home side at Scotstoun, at least with ball in hand, will be the man who lines up directly opposite Fagerson – England international Billy Vunipola, all 120 kilos of him.

Fagerson was a star of the Scotland Under-20s team that claimed fifth place at the 2017 Junior World Cup, and he graduated to the full international side on the summer tour, starting the defeat by the USA in Houston. But Vunipola will present a different kind of test to anything he has faced before; one which, however exacting it may prove, he is looking forward to confronting.

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“I’ve never played against him or Saracens, so it will probably be one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever come up against,” Fagerson said on Friday, after the Warriors’ indoor training session at Toryglen. “I’m very excited and I’ve been doing my homework.

“It’s difficult for a player to be the perfect package, but Billy does get pretty close. He’s a pretty good ball-carrier and he can smack boys in defence. I’ve had quite an extensive look at him and the rest of the back row, and there are obviously ways to exploit them. Hopefully we can do that on Sunday.

“I’m only 20 and grew up watching Six Nations rugby, so I’ve obviously seen him quite a bit. It’s been pretty cool watching all the international guys, so to play against one of them will be awesome, a big challenge. I’m excited for it.

“He’s probably the best back-row I’ll have ever played against. I played against Sam Simmonds of Exeter and his footwork lit up the park, but he got exploited a couple of times up here as well, so hopefully we’re able to do the same to Billy.”

When you know you are about to take on a team that includes names such as Billy and Mako Vunipola, Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell, there can be a temptation to get caught up in working out how to negate their strengths rather than concentrating on your own virtues. According to Warriors hooker Fraser Brown, that is one of the things that went wrong the last time the teams met, in the Champions Cup quarter-final two seasons ago, and it is a pitfall that Fagerson knows the squad have to avoid in this opening Pool Three match.


“If you dwell on them as individuals and what they’ve done, you can get caught up in it and focus too much on them. You’ve got to focus on yourself, I think. We were probably the victim of that two years ago down there, we focussed on everything they were going to and we changed our game to suit them. That’s what they want.

A name’s a name, but on the day anyone can make anyone else look stupid. We’ve just got to concentrate on us.

“The boys are bitterly disappointed with the way they played when we went down there, so there’s a bit of angst to try and make amends for what happened. But again, if you get too caught up on wanting revenge or to make wrongs right . . . . You’ve got to focus on yourself, play the game we want to play.”

At 108kg, Fagerson is used to giving away some weight to opponents, but he has virtues which bulkier players tend to lack – virtues which Glasgow coach Dave Rennie has encouraged him to develop. “Dave has helped me a lot and spoken to me a lot about my footwork. Obviously I’m not Billy Vunipola size, 120kg, so I can’t run straight over boys all the time, but late movement, late footwork is one of the areas I feel I’m pretty good at, getting on to soft shoulders. I think that will be quite key this weekend, because if you run straight into boys like [Maro] Itoje and Will Skelton, you’re probably not going to come off first.”

If Fagerson had to take on Vunipola on his own time after time, you would not fancy the young Scot’s chances. But he will have Ryan Wilson and Callum Gibbins alongside him in what Rennie believes is a well-balanced back row.

“Ideally you want to pick players with complementary skill sets,” the coach said of his back-row selection. “If you’ve got three guys that all want to carry and no-one wants to clean any rucks, you’re going to have some problems. What we’ve got with Matt is someone who can give us some go-forward; someone who’s really dynamic.

“He’s got a real point of difference, Matt – he’s got great feet. Really explosive – he has the ability to break the line and get in behind the defence to create quick ball. He’s a dynamic defender, he’s deceptively quick, and he’s not a big man but he’s a very good lineout forward.

“In Cully [Gibbins] you’ve got a massive work ethic – really strong defensively post-tackle and really good around the clean-out area. And you’ve got Ryan, who does a bit of both for us – brings a bit of physicality and a really good skill set. He’s a good athlete, really comfortable in the wide channels.

“We think it’s a really good blend of experience. And from a leadership point of view we’ve got a lot of key people on the field. A big chunk of our leadership group are all starting.”

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About Stuart Bathgate 1427 Articles
Stuart has been the rugby correspondent for both The Scotsman and The Herald, and was also The Scotsman’s chief sports writer for 14 years from 2000.