JOHNNY MATTHEWS had a pretty good summer, and Autumn isn’t going too badly so far either for the 30-year-old – who became the latest hooker called into Scotland’s World Cup squad over the weekend following a neck injury to Stuart McInally (who himself had replaced the concussed Dave Cherry just a week and a half earlier).
“I got married, came out here for a week to see my best man, Archie Russell [younger brother of Scotland stand-off, Finn, who currently lives along the coast in Monaco], I went to Frankfurt on my stag-do and went to Crete on honeymoon, so I’ve made the most of the 13 weeks off,” revealed the Glasgow Warriors man after his first training session with the Scotland squad yesterday morning.
“It will become the perfect summer if I am able to cap it off by playing for Scotland in a World Cup,” added Matthews, who credits the influence of Warriors head coach Franco Smith for helping him hit the best form of his career during the last 12 months.
“He certainly made me a fitter player, and a better player,” explained the man who finished last season as Warriors’ top try scorer with 13 from 19 matches and also pushed his way ahead George Turner in selection for the match-day squad for the Challenge Cup Final defeat to Toulon in Dublin in May.
“He’s brilliant. He improved everyone in the squad last year. That was clear to see from where we were the previous year, to where we were last season. He gave me a nice phone call when I got the call-up as well. He’s really driven up the standards and made sure we’re all fit. He was delighted for me and hopes I take the opportunity, as well as coming back to Glasgow fit.”
Matthews was enjoying a quiet break in Elie, the picturesque seaside town in the East Neuk of Fife, with his new wife, Mel, and some close friends, when the call came from Scotland forwards coach John Dalziel on Saturday morning, telling him to drop everything and get to the south of France as soon as humanly possible.
“I don’t know if anyone’s been to Elie, but the phone signal is pretty sketchy,” he explained. “When I’d seen John’s number pop up, I knew he wasn’t phoning for a catch-up, but I was only catching every third word from him, so I ended the call and called him back on WhatsApp so I could hear better. He said: ‘How quickly can you get to Nice?’.”
Matthews didn’t need to be asked twice, immediately setting off on a dash across the central belt of Scotland and back in order to make it to the Cote d’Azur as quickly as humanly possible.
“My boots were at Scotstoun, so I had to phone ahead to keep the place open and then shoot through to Glasgow to pick them up,” he explained. “Then I rushed back to Edinburgh, where I live, to pack and get on a 6am flight on Sunday morning.
“It was such a mad rush that it was only once we got to the hotel that it started to feel real. I was very shocked to get the call, but I’m obviously delighted and just looking to throw my hat into the ring to try to get some games while I’m here.”
Matthews grew up in Liverpool and is a dyed-in-the-wool Everton fan, so the Toffees beating Brentford on Saturday afternoon was an added bonus to the news of his call-up. He qualifies to play for Scotland through his mother from Blantyre and wore the thistle at under-18s level before a knee injury ruled him out of contention for the under-20s. Instead, he went on to play for England Counties (a representative team for players who play in the County Championship and in England’s third tier or below).
His first taste of professional rugby was with a struggling Rotherham Titans team who finished third bottom of the English second tier Championship during the 2015-16 season, which came in between two high-scoring seasons playing for Sedgley Park in England’s National League Division 2 (20 tries in 2014-15 and 29 in 2016-17), before making the move north to join Boroughmuir in the Scottish Premiership for the 2017-18 season.
His try scoring exploits carried on in the top flight of the Scottish club game, and he finished the 2018-19 as the league’s top scorer on 19, before joining Glasgow – originally as World Cup cover – at the beginning of the 2019-20 season, then winning his first Scotland A cap against Chile last summer.
“I was hoping I had an outside chance of making it into the original training squad [for this World Cup], but it’s a pretty settled group and there have been the same three, four or five hookers in the last x-number of squads so I knew I’d have to do pretty well to get in, ” reflected Matthews. “So, I was disappointed but it wasn’t a shock that I didn’t get in.”
Now, with head coach Gregor Townsend expected to rest several frontline players for Saturday’s penultimate World Cup Pool B outing against Romania in Lille so as to keep them fit and fresh for Ireland a week later, Matthews’ could well pick up his first cap in just a few days’ time.
“I never thought when I was playing amateur rugby for Boroughmuir that I’d be playing in a World Cup a few years later,” Matthews concluded. “I was just trying to enjoy it there and take an opportunity if it presented itself, which luckily it did with Glasgow
“Test rugby is a different beast, but I’ve just got to take it in my stride and try to make the most of it.”