Tabai Matson and swashbuckling Harlequins could be a match made in rugby heaven   


In June Tabai Matson knew he was to be Harlequins’ new coach, so sat 12,000 miles away he watched the Premiership playoffs to understand the club he would be taking over.

When Bristol went 28-0 up in the first half of the semi-final against Quins it was 4am in New Zealand, and Matson turned to his wife Nadia.

‘Shall we turn this off, darling?’ he recalls now to Sportsmail, mockingly relaying his emotions of the time, putting his head in his hands and rubbing his eyes.

Tabai Matson has come in as a senior coach at Harlequins ahead of their title defence

Harlequins won a Premiership Final for the ages in June when they beat Exeter Chiefs 40-38

Harlequins won a Premiership Final for the ages in June when they beat Exeter Chiefs 40-38

‘She’s like: ‘you’re the next coach, you should probably watch til the end!’

‘Then you see one of the greatest games ever played, incredible, amazing… and after it you think ‘what an amazing group of people’. Phenomenal.’

Indeed they were, first beating the Bears 43-36 after extra-time, next performing a similar trick outscoring favourites Exeter six tries to five and 40-38 in the greatest final ever seen.

And all without a head coach. Suddenly, Matson is tasked with improving a side who clearly did not need a leader – how on earth will he do that?

The jovial 48-year-old Fijian laughs heartily at the question.

‘When they won the title a lot of people in New Zealand said to me ‘who would want to take over there!?’ he says.

‘First, I’m not taking over the joint. That’s not the way sustainable leadership works. And second it doesn’t change my remit.

Contrasting emotions at the final whistle as Harlequins squeezed out Exeter at Twickenham

Contrasting emotions at the final whistle as Harlequins squeezed out Exeter at Twickenham

‘It’s a fascinating tipping point. Only a handful of teams get to move on from an amazing win like that, so I’m here for the journey.’

From the outside a Fijian-born former All Black coaching Quins – the country’s most unapologetic swashbucklers – seems a match made in rugby heaven.

‘Perfect! Wow!’ Matson smiles again at that thought.

‘The way you make genuine change is in the middle and long term. I had five interviews, all Zoom, late at night, and what became pretty evident is that my skillset fits here.’

By that he means he is – as he thinks many who have coached in New Zealand are – good at empowering players, not wrestling for control.

‘I’m not going to be a dictator, that’s not my style,’ he confirms.

Matson has had varied experiences, ones he thinks sets him up for this job perfectly, rating 2015 as his seminal coaching year.

Starting at New Zealand’s ‘Anglo Saxon, set-piece dominant, winning machine’ Crusaders, he then became the first non-Maori to lead the Maori All Blacks, a ‘very culturally driven, almost ceremonial team’.

Matson (right) celebrates with Todd Blackadder after Canterbury won the Super 12 in 1998

Matson (right) celebrates with Todd Blackadder after Canterbury won the Super 12 in 1998

Quickly he then went to England’s World Cup with Fiji – who he played for in the 1990s, later switching to the All Blacks, the only man to represent both before eligibility laws changed – where ‘you pick 31 and 23 want to be wingers!’

His lessons were success has the same pillars everywhere, sport is pragmatic, and you better win.

If Quins do not win the league again by default he has made them worse, so ahead of their trip to Newcastle on Sunday, is that a worry?

‘I’m not nervous about that. One of the reasons why people like being in programmes I’m in is that I don’t transfer anxiety,’ is Matson’s answer.

Matson pictured during his time as defence coach for the Chiefs in New Zealand

Matson pictured during his time as defence coach for the Chiefs in New Zealand

‘Maybe because I’m Fijian and I spend most of my afternoons in a hammock! The Surrey trees aren’t as good for that!

‘This is our first competition week – at training I’m looking at laughter, enjoyment. Me adding anxiety saying ‘we must win two titles!’ is not helpful.’

Matson is now six weeks into living in Gomshall, 15 minutes from Quins’ Surrey Sports Park training ground where he sits outside the Starbucks talking to Sportsmail with rain falling around.

In 2017 he left Bath after a year as Todd Blackadder’s assistant coach as both his mother and mother-in-law had cancer back in New Zealand. Thankfully the latter recovered and Matson was able to care for the former in the last two years of her life.

Matson is ready to commit here, with Nadia joining him after her Kiwi school teaching year finishes in December, and two daughters Mikey, 23, and Holly, 21, and son Zack, 19, all settled in America and New Zealand.

He totally buys into Quins’ style too – which came to represent a sort of moral crusade for those desperate to be entertained, not bored stiff as many were by the Lions series.

‘The beauty of our game is that there are different ways to succeed,’ Matson says.

‘What Harlequins did was say ‘no matter what, we’re going to go down swinging the way we do it’ and it bloody well worked.

Quins staged a stunning comeback from 28-0 behind to beat Bristol in last season's semi-final

Quins staged a stunning comeback from 28-0 behind to beat Bristol in last season’s semi-final

‘I’m hoping the world of rugby goes ‘there is another way, we love teams with positive intent’.

‘It’s really positive for the game that a team manages win in a manner that’s not traditional.

‘Why can’t we get more of that? The people that lobby, priority No 1 is safety, but priority No 2 is who is watching this game, and what do they want to watch?

‘I’m really hoping there is a public sway towards ‘let’s see more of that’ and my team go ‘flipping hell, that’s the way we did it last year, so let’s go’.’

Marcus Smith, Harlequins’ jester of a fly-half, became the flagbearer for that style.

‘Rugby is moving towards a trend of running rugby, so if you want a running 10 there’s only one guy on the list for England – he’s at the top,’ says Matson who sees similarities with All Black No 10 Richie Mo’unga, who he coached at the Crusaders.

‘Eddie Jones was here this week, I said to him ‘you’ve got to put him in there’.’

Quins fly-half Marcus Smith is regarded as the flagbearer for their swashbuckling approach

Quins fly-half Marcus Smith is regarded as the flagbearer for their swashbuckling approach

Joe Marler came to embody a new, confident Quins too. The England prop, rightly celebrated for opening up on mental health struggles, was allowed to thrive with all his eccentricities proudly on show and was sensational on the field having been released off it.

‘Rugby is the most inclusive sport, and one thing we say is you’ve got to cater for all individuals, let them be who they are, welcome them in, and this is one of the few places I’ve seen it genuinely done,’ Matson says.

‘I took a photo when we left Leinster after our preseason game of us at the airport to send back to my mates in New Zealand, a couple of a real uniform sticklers.

‘Our players were leaving kicking their jandles (flip flops) along the floor, in shorts and t-shirts. People could see that and go ‘they look a scruffy group’ and others could say ‘does it matter? They’re just young lads dressing how they want’

‘I’m learning this is a place where you can be yourself.’

So when Quins take an inevitable beating one day, in the depths of winter to a defensive team, will they continue to be themselves?

Joe Marler came to embody a new, confident Harlequins and was allowed to express himself

Joe Marler came to embody a new, confident Harlequins and was allowed to express himself

‘That’ll be the true test,’ says Matson.

‘I definitely feel on the back of success there is a resolve here that this is the way forward, and we’re going to do everything we can to do play the way we want to play.

‘There’s no going under the radar, no ambushing teams until January, every team you play against will either have a bit of beef ‘I cannot believe you won that’ or ‘we can genuinely beat you and should have done last year’.

‘It doesn’t mean we’re going to win every game, maybe we’ll take some hidings, but this is the way we roll.’

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