WITH four tries from six league games so far this season, Boroughmuir hooker Johnny Matthews has some way to go before catching front-runner Ross McCann (who has touched down nine times) at the top of the scoring chart. But it would be foolish to dismiss the Liverpudlian’s chances of ending up there amongst the league’s most prolific scorers at the end of the season.
After all, he managed 29 tries in 26 games for Sedgley Park in England’s National League Division 2 last year, having previously topped 20 during his first season playing at that level in 2014-15.
In between those two high-scoring campaigns, he had a frustrating season playing for a struggling Rotherham Titans team which finished third bottom of the English second tier Championship – but he reckons he is a stronger player and better character as a result of that experience, which should stand him in good stead as stand-in captain for Boroughmuir as their battle to escape the dark, creeping spectre of relegation enter a critical sequence of matches.
“I was a bit naïve really about what was required going into that season with Rotherham and I just didn’t quite make my mark. It was a good learning curve for me and there were some good boys there – including Scottish lads like Robin Hislop and Colin Quigley – but I didn’t get off to the best start and it’s a really tough league to prove yourself in,” he recalls.
“I don’t think Boroughmuir is really comparable to the English Championship in terms of scale, but compared to Sedgley Park: the facilities here are second to none, and the boys come in with a different mentality. We are here to train and play, whereas at Sedgley Park, we were a good team and we won quite a lot of games last year, but there was more of a social aspect to it.”
“Don’t get me wrong, we are all good friends at Boroughmuir, but it is a little bit more professional in terms of approach.”
Matthews qualifies for Scotland through his Glasgow-born mother. He wore the thistle at Under-18 level, and was part of the Under-20 set-up in 2012-13 before picking up a knee injury which ruled him out forhe rest of the season. He had hoped to return to the squad the following year but didn’t quite get himself in a position to do that. “I got really unfit, if I’m being honest,” he admits.
Matthews ended up playing English Counties Under-20s instead that season, and then graduated to the senior English Counties side the following year – but he clearly had not slipped completely off the radar of those tasked with tracking the best Scottish qualified talent south of the border because it was Rob Brierley, his old Scottish Exiles mentor, who engineered his move north during the summer.
“I just fancied a change. I spoke to Rob and he put me in touch with a few clubs. I had friends who had been at Boroughmuir before and they all speak really highly of it, so I just thought: Why not?”
It just so happened that his new club coach, Peter Wright, was in charge of the Scotland Under-20 team when Matthews was involved there – and although that connection did not have a direct role to play in his decision to join the Meggetland outfit, the pair are seem to be kindred spirits.
“Peter has got really good man-management. As much as you see him rubbing people up the wrong way on the side-lines, inside the coaching set-up he’s really good at handling different players according to what works for them,” says Matthews.
“All the coaches bring something different but they really work well together. Paul Larter [Boroughmuir’s forwards coach and performance analyst for Edinburgh Rugby] is really good for me in terms of the analysis side and bringing that professionalism,” he adds.
Wright, meanwhile, says that when Chris Laidlaw was ruled out until the end of November with a knee injury, he had absolutely no qualms about appointing Matthews team captain after just four games.
“He’s a bit of a character with a real Scouse sense of humour. He’s very happy-go-lucky but can be serious when he has to be,” explains the coach.
“I was speaking to him the other day and he said that he thought he maybe rubbed a few people up the wrong way when he was involved with Scotland before because he came across as being a bit cock-sure, but he’s matured into a natural leader.”
“Sometimes, when a forward scores a lot of tries, people assume it is because he is out on the wing and not getting involved in the hard work – but, to be fair to Johnny, most of his tries come from around the breakdown area, and off a couple of line-out moves which we have, so he does lead by example.”
“I would say he is an old-fashioned type of player. He trains hard, plays hard and enjoys a few beers and socialising afterwards … maybe not to the level that we enjoyed a beer when I was playing, but he understands the value of team-mates socialising together.”
Wright adds that Matthews’ appreciation of some of the more traditional aspects of rugby life should not preclude him from catching the eye of the Murrayfield performance department.
“If you look at the hookers at Edinburgh at the moment, I don’t think he would be out of place training against any of them or competing for a spot in the team. The one thing that might count against him as a front-row player is that he is 24 now and doesn’t have a huge amount of experience of the pro game – but he’s got the skill-set to do it.”
“Technically, he is a real hooker in terms of being able to scrummage, and his line-out throwing is decent. He is aggressive, explosive and athletic. He’s not the biggest hooker in the world, but he is big enough. Most importantly, he has a rugby brain – chatting to him it is clear that he knows the game inside out and understands what you want him to do.”
“When we played Ayr at the start of the season, Pat MacAthur had been released by Glasgow Warriors to play for them, and I would say Johnny was the best hooker on the park that day. He was our man-of-the-match and he was up against a full internationalist. So, if you are gauging it on that, then I would say he is definitely worth a look.”
Matthews, quite understandably, shrugs off any suggestion that the pro game might be the next step on his rugby journey. For the time being, he is more than happy focussing on his day job as a development officer in North Berwick, and on helping Boroughmuir climb out of the relegation battle into the relative bliss of mid-table obscurity.
He reckons that a clean-sweep of Boroughmuir’s next three games, which would transform the whole complexion of their season, is entirely achievable. First up is Hawick – the only team below Boroughmuir on the league ladder – at Meggetland this Saturday, followed by Watsonians away and Glasgow Hawks back at home again.
“This is an opportunity to really start pushing up the table – to get to where we should be given the ability we have in the squad,” insists Matthews. “We’ve been competitive against a lot of the top teams in the league, and we just need a bit more of a clinical edge. Even against Melrose, it was 10-3 at half-time, and we just got blown away in the second half – but I think a lot of teams in this league know how that feels.”
“So, we need to cut out the basic errors because we can’t afford to carry on giving teams 10 to 15 cheap points, like we have been doing. We don’t want to be the team which plays good rugby to get two bonus points every week. We need to be seeing out those wins.”
“We need to start playing in the right areas. We’ve got the talent to score a try from anywhere, and you want to make use of that, but it is about picking your battles.”