The baby-faced tyro against the Fijian colossus. Glasgow’s precocious Warrior versus Edinburgh’s irresistible titan.
A blockbuster duel at the heart of a Test match that ought to deliver the dazzling, the brutal and a mountain of points.
Matt Fagerson and Viliame “Big Bill” Mata are two of the most impressive performers on the Scottish rugby scene right now.
Still just 20, Fagerson, the younger brother of Scotland prop Zander, is an almighty prospect, a tireless but canny operator at number eight with deft hands and a sharp rugby brain inside that young noggin.
He is one of only two forwards to have been capped as teenagers in Scottish history – the other is the outstanding Jonny Gray – and how Fagerson has earned this opportunity, a third Test and second start in Saturday’s Murrayfield meeting with the touring Pacific Islanders.
So, what’s the catch? Well, Scotland had plenty ball against Wales a week ago but for a long time, didn’t do a great deal with it. There were moments during the 21-10 defeat, particularly in the first half, where they were crying out for go-forward, a hulking back-row monster to tuck the ball under an arm and bludgeon his way over the gain line. A power-player to get the engine revving and beat the path for the high-tempo stuff Gregor Townsend demands.
In criticising Scotland, people often point to the absence of such a brute, but that is hardly Townsend’s fault – Billy Vunipolas do not, after all, grow on trees.
It is worth noting that Blade Thomson would almost certainly have made his debut this weekend had he not suffered a brain injury – ironically, at Murrayfield – playing for the Scarlets against Edinburgh. It is also worth noting that despite standing 6’6, he is much more of a Townsend-style galloper than a steamroller.
But boy, does he play big. He is quick and dynamic and packs a heap of explosiveness into that “modest” frame. He might not be a monster but he has a monstrous engine, the endurance to carry and batter and rampage for 80 minutes.
He fits the game plan. He was brilliant for Glasgow in their agonising near miss at Munster a fortnight ago. He starred in their European decimation of Cardiff Blues and their bruising loss to Saracens the week before – games which most players will tell you aren’t far short of Test intensity or attrition. This is another step up but it is one Fagerson wholeheartedly deserves.
While Glasgow and Scotland might fancy adding some beef to his “modest” frame, Edinburgh’s strength and conditioning staff have worked very hard to stop Mata, his opposite number this weekend, getting any larger.
Richard Cockerill has done a lot of smart things since taking the helm at Murrayfield 17 months ago, but giving Big Bill an extended contract is up there with the best.
It took time for Mata to settle in Scotland. His wife had never left Fiji before and in his first media interview with this writer, he admitted he only knew the city was “near London” when he signed the contract shortly after winning 2016 Olympic sevens gold.
Mata has been supported, educated and slimmed down, the 6’7 juggernaut given the tools to harness his talents and a game plan that allows him to flourish.
Now, we are seeing him at his outrageous best – comfortably good enough to play for any team in Europe. He is probably the form number eight on the continent, racking up more carries than anyone in the Champions Cup and Pro14 so far.
The thunder and the figures get all the attention, but there is so much more to Mata’s game. So much wit and guile and almost intangible rugby acumen. You get astonishing off-loads from a lot of Fijians but with Mata, they are tempered with intellect, cleverly delayed and expertly delivered where others would fling the Hail Mary. In short, he makes a ton of carries, gobbles up a pile of yards, creates and scores tries and very, very seldom gives the ball away. What a gem Edinburgh have on their hands.
We in Scotland know very well the impact of Fijian jewels and what can happen when those with deeper pockets covet them. Nobody can do what Leone Nakarawa can with a rugby ball grasped at the end of his impossibly prehensile arms. You could put the towering lock in a straightjacket, bind him in chains, throw him in a coffin and seal the lid and still you’d fancy him to get a limb free and flick out an off-load.
“He is the only guy I know in world rugby who can stand upright with his arm in the air, get hit by three people, and not really move,” former Glasgow team-mate Josh Strauss said of Nakarawa this week.
That’s about as accurate and telling a summation as you’ll find. Throw in some incredible dexterity and footwork and you get one of the best players in the world. Shy and humble, Nakarawa was an extremely popular member of the Warriors squad – he became known as Uncle Nak by Ryan Wilson’s children.
It was absolutely no surprise that after propelling Glasgow to their first Pro12 title, Racing 92 bought the game-breaker out of his contract and handed him a considerable pay rise to come to Paris. A similar fate may await Mata in the not too distant future.
These galacticos are only two weapons in an astonishing Fijian armoury. There’s Vereniki Goneva, last year’s Premiership player of the season and joint-top try-scorer. There’s Josua “the Bus” Tuisova, whose calves are as broad as the average man’s torso. There’s the brilliant Peceli Yato at flanker, Semi Radradra, one of the most devastating centres in the world, their injured 137kg behemoth wing Nemani Nadolo and Glasgow’s effervescent Niko Matawalu, who hasn’t been selected for the autumn series.
If Fiji’s players had more time to train together, if they had greater resources, a more frequent crack at top-Tier opposition, and if their young talent had adequate protection from shameful plunderers, the world had better watch out.
Townsend, as is his tendency, has shuffled his deck for autumn Test number two. Up front, Exeter’s hulking Sam Skinner gets a debut alongside Grant Gilchrist in the second-row. Fraser Brown gets a start ahead of Stuart McInally.
Stuart Hogg is known for his phoenix-like powers of recovery and his remarkable comeback from an ankle injury that seemed likely to rule him out of all four November games culminates in his reclaiming the 15 jersey. Greig Laidlaw and Finn Russell are back from France and back in the saddle. Sean Maitland starts and Pete Horne, another smaller man who plays big, comes into midfield.
Huw Jones took a very public kicking for missing two tackles on two Welsh try-scorers a week ago. An excellent and highly detailed RugbyPass examination of how the tries were conceded indicated the defensive system as much as the player were to blame, but they were still shots you would expect an international centre to make. Jones is not in the 23 this weekend but Townsend says that is down to rest and tactics, not performance.
Horne is probably the most underrated player in the Scottish game and also the most heavily castigated. The backline played with a good deal more pep when he was introduced from the bench in Cardiff and his role as a shrewd and experienced second distributor will be an important one.
For all Fiji’s logistical and financial disadvantages, in terms of sheer ability, they want for very little. Scotland know that better than most. Riding high after toppling the Wallabies in their own back yard, they were well-beaten when they went to Suva last June. Nakarawa was at the forefront. Mata was out injured but he is rampant now. Scotland know what’s coming at them. Stopping it will be another matter entirely.
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