RUGBY: Matawalu – both a liability and a match winner

Edinburgh Rugby celebrates a win over Treviso
(Picture from Facebook)

by Hamish Macdonell

Niko Matawalu is a match-winner. There is no doubt about that. Glasgow’s run to the play-offs last year would probably not have been achieved without the little Fijian scrum half. But he is also a liability (and I’m not talking here about any allegations about biting or anything like that).

Niko Matawalu  (from Twitter)
Niko Matawalu
(from Twitter)
Glasgow’s 13-6 loss to Munster last Friday was a game they could – and should – have won and one of the main reasons they didn’t win was Matawalu.

The first crucial point came early in the second half when Munster were reduced to 14 men when James Cronin, the Irish prop, was penalised for blatantly killing the ball on his own line. Glasgow were given a penalty right on the Munster try line and the game was there for the taking. Munster were leading by 13-6 at the time and Chris Cusiter, the Glasgow captain decided to go for the scrum. It was a rational enough decision but the sensible move in such a tight game was to go for the posts and take the easy three points. Glasgow came away from that scrum without any points and, indeed, didn’t get any more during the rest of the time that Cronin was off the field or, for that matter, for the rest of that night.

It was a very tight game and on two further occasions Glasgow were given penalties in eminently kickable positions. On both of these occasions Matawalu decided to run rather than take the points. Twice he took the penalties quickly and headed off towards the Munster line and on both occasions he was caught and the ball was lost. That was nine points passed up in a tight game which Munster won by seven. Cusiter’s decision was excusable, Matawalu’s were not.

Matawalu’s decision to run everything works occasionally and, when it does, it looks brilliant. But it is only really useful if Glasgow are chasing the game and need a game-breaking try. On Friday, Glasgow needed points to eat into the Munster lead in what was always going to be a close game.

Glasgow warriors logoBut not all of the blame can be laid at the Fijian’s door. Part must be directed at coach Gregor Townsend and what seemed to be a panicky substitution strategy. He replaced Cusiter, who was doing well leading a solid, attritional game plan, on 55 minutes, and then he virtually emptied the entire Glasgow bench over the following couple of minutes in what appeared a desperate move to change the game plan and alter the pace of the match. There was no need to do that, Glasgow were gaining control and Townsend could have kept that tactic back for the last 15 or ten minutes when he really needed something different.

Friday’s match was comfortably Glasgow’s worst home performance for months and the result was that the Warriors were knocked off the top of the table – and deservedly so.

However, the Glasgow side are heading into a difficult spell. The autumn internationals coming up and Glasgow are set to lose at least a full XV to the national squad. As a result, this is the time for the overseas players at the club to step up – something Matawalu may find it hard to do if, as is possible, he ends up being banned for months by the citing commissioner.

edinburgh rugby logoAs for Edinburgh, Friday night’s game against Treviso was positive – at least in part. Edinburgh won 20-13, which lifted the capital side off the bottom of the table. But it has to be said that Treviso were pretty poor. Not only that but Edinburgh had so much possession, at least in the first half, that they should have had the four-try bonus point in the bag before the changeover. It was to Edinburgh’s discredit that they failed to put any distance between themselves and their Italian opponents and then let Treviso in with an easy try to throw the game into the balance with ten minutes to go.

One great breenge by David Denton set up Willem Nel to barge over and the game was won but it was tighter and more tense than it should have been.

Edinburgh’s cause wasn’t helped by Greig Laidlaw having his worst game for some time. He threw one wayward pass behind fly half Harry Leonard, he tossed another into the hands of a Treviso player that almost led to a try and he knocked on over the try line. Matt Scott was another to underperform. Scott is a great runner but he appears to believe he can break through every time. He would be better advised to pass more often and try to break the line less frequently. If Laidlaw and Scott tick, so do Edinburgh but, with both of them out of sorts, the team suffer too.

Edinburgh's David Denton
Edinburgh’s David Denton
At least Denton appears back to his rampaging best and Greig Tonks has the confidence to run hard from deep and he is confident enough under a high ball that he must be in with at least a chance of starting for Scotland in at least one of this autumn’s internationals. The worst aspect of Friday’s match at Murrayfield, however, was the sight of Tim Visser in agony on the pitch before being stretchered off. His loss will affect Scotland and Edinburgh and, with Stuart Hogg also out for most of November, the national back three – which was looking so good just 12 months ago – is now very shaky indeed.

It seems likely that Scott Johnson won’t pick his number one team for the Japan game on November 9 but will keep his heaviest forwards, at least, back for the Springboks game a week later. His best team, at the moment, would appear to be the following and this should be the one that gets a run out against South Africa, with a whole second string available for the Japan game a week earlier.

    Potential XV to play the Springboks on Nov 17:
    Ryan Grant, Ross Ford, Euan Murray, Jim Hamilton, Richie Gray, Alistair Strokosch,
    Kelly Brown, David Denton, Greig Laidlaw, Max Evans, Ruaridh Jackson, Matt Scott,
    Nick de Luca, Sean Lamont, Sean Maitland.
    Subs: Alistair Dickinson, Pat McArthur, Moray Low, Al Kellogg,
    John Barclay, Chris Cusiter, Duncan Taylor.

    Potential XV to play Japan on Nov 9:
    Alistair Dickinson, Pat McArthur, Moray Low, Al Kellogg, Grant Gilchrist, Rob Harley,
    Blair Cowan, Johnnie Beattie, Chris Cusiter, Duncan Weir, Tommy Seymour, Alex Dunbar,
    Mark Bennett, Duncan Taylor, Greig Tonks.
    Subs: Geoff Cross, Scott Lawson, Jon Welsh, Tim Swinson, Kieran Low,
    Henry Pyrgos, Jack Cuthbert.