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Alex Matthews: 'Letting dad be a part of it all, that’s what means most'

By Martyn Thomas
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 20: Alex Matthews of England looks on as she walks out of the tunnel after half time during the Guinness Women's Six Nations 2024 match between England and Ireland at Twickenham Stadium on April 20, 2024 in London, England. (Photo by Alex Davidson - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

Alex Matthews was not present at Wednesday night’s glitzy RPA Awards dinner to hear her name being announced as the England Women’s Player of the Year.

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When news filtered through that she had beaten Ellie Kildunne, Meg Jones and Zoe Aldcroft to a prize voted for by her Red Roses peers, the Gloucester-Hartpury number eight was around 30 miles west of London enjoying a celebratory meal with her parents.

Matthews had planned to take dad, Dave to the ceremony as her plus-one before the concussion she suffered during her side’s Allianz Premiership Women’s Rugby (PWR) defeat to Saracens last Saturday forced a late change of plan.

But there was never any doubt that Matthews would spend the evening with her two biggest supporters.

Matthews spoke candidly to the Telegraph at the end of March about Dave’s cancer diagnosis, and although there was hope at that time, his condition has since become terminal. Celebrating her victories with him has understandably become all the more important.

“He can’t be cured so it’s just a matter of time,” Matthews says down a crackling phone line as she drives from Gloucester to her parents’ house.

“Having those moments with him and letting him be a part of it all, I think that’s what means more. I’ve won Six Nations and medals and awards throughout my career, and it doesn’t change anything. Your dad is still your dad.

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“I think being able to share it with him is what means the most to me.”

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As Matthews revealed in March, she learned of her father’s latest diagnosis – Dave had previously got the all clear from prostate cancer a decade ago – hours after England’s victory against Canada in their opening match of WXV 1 in New Zealand.

It is testament to her character and resolve that Matthews has been able to put in the level of performances that she has done while going through so much away from the pitch.

“I think the hard thing in rugby is you can’t have a day where you don’t turn up at 90, 100 per cent,” she admits.

“It’s just finding those moments to let yourself actually deflate and have those low times. At the end of the day, we’re all human, aren’t we?

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“We’ve just got to find that balance somewhere in life.”

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If her performances in an England shirt this season are anything to go by, helping the Red Roses to the inaugural WXV 1 title and another Guinness Women’s Six Nations Grand Slam, then it would seem Matthews has been able to do that.

Whether it is hitting tackles and rucks, bursting through gaps at Twickenham or scoring tries in France, Matthews has not played better since making her Test debut as an 18-year-old in 2011.

She describes it as the “biggest honour” that it is her team-mates who have recognised that. “It’s incredible,” Matthews adds.

“On the days that you struggle with confidence, you look around your team and you trust them, and you know that they’re going to get you through the game.

“So, it’s just nice to know that it’s reciprocal; the girls do have your back. So, it’s a huge honour. Especially, amongst a crazy, incredibly talented squad.”

Matthews was just 21 when she appeared as a replacement in England’s Women’s Rugby World Cup 2014 final victory against Canada.

At the time, she says she “was more happy for the girls around me because I knew they’d been in two World Cup finals and lost, and it was finally their time”.

Matthews has herself since lost two World Cup finals but has drawn an incredible amount of pride from being part of a team that has been at the vanguard of the growth of the women’s game over the past few years.

“I’m just fortunate, for my whole career we’ve been a successful England squad. You almost take that side for granted,” Matthews says.

“Being part of the squad the last three years and [seeing] the way the game’s grown, having France at Twickenham, that’s most definitely got to be up there as a career highlight.

“Stepping off the bus, having hundreds of people at the stadium there for you. But what meant the most was after the game, speaking to people who work at Twickenham saying that it was the best event they’ve ever worked at, at the stadium.

“The atmosphere, the feel, the crowd that we bring in and I think those things mean more because that’s what we want to do to the game. We want to inspire.”

That anecdotal evidence bodes well for England’s home tournament next year and Matthews is excited to take another step towards selling out Twickenham with the Tests against France and New Zealand this September.

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She believes those particular matches, scheduled to be played at Kingsholm and Twickenham respectively, can help “build a lot of traction ahead of the World Cup”.

And there is a warning for those rivals who may be hoping the pressure of attempting to win a third World Cup, on home soil, may prove too much for John Mitchell’s seemingly unstoppable side.

“We still haven’t really clicked,” Matthews insists, “which I think you could tell from France.

“Although we won, we got the outcome, away to France in the Six Nations, we’ve still got a lot to work on together. Hopefully by the end of next year, we’ll still be building and coming together.”

That is a scary thought for the Black Ferns, or Canada, or anyone else brave enough to take on the Red Roses juggernaut.

“We’ve honestly got such high standards, individually and as a group,” Matthews continues. “Although you get the outcome, you break it down and you look at the stats – attack, breakdown, defence – and you’re actually looking at margins then.

“When you look at those, you then realise actually the small adjustments you need to make to keep improving.

“We came away from Scotland, I can’t remember the score [England won 48-0] but we weren’t happy and I remember Mitch saying, ‘I’m not sure if you’re ready’.

“If you think, you’re putting 40 points on teams and your head coach is saying I don’t think you’re ready for the challenge yet. I think that says it all, really.

“It makes you all just want to keep on improving and we’re just such a competitive squad it’s ridiculous. I’ve never known a group of girls like it.”

More competitive than the World Cup winners of 2014? “Yeah, without a doubt,” Matthews says.

“It’s the depth that we’ve got in the squad and the competition that each player brings in training as well. You’ve never got an easy session.

“You can’t back off in a session because you’ve got the next person who’s after your shirt chasing you down.”

That competition for places extends to the club game and there is a warning too for Saracens, Bristol and Exeter ahead of the PWR semi-finals.

“To be honest, I think losing [against Saracens] was the best thing that could have happened to us,” the Gloucester-Hartpury forward insists.

“Because we’ll all go away, we’ll learn a lot more and I think you just want it that little bit more for those play-offs.”

What would it mean to Matthews to help Gloucester-Hartpury become back-to-back PWR champions? “It would be amazing,” she says.

“We keep talking about the impact we want to make in the community in Gloucester and I think to have that semi-final at Kingsholm and to build on last year, not many squads do that do they?

“So, it would be incredible and hopefully just build the interest in the game and the area, especially for young girls, the younger generation. It would be incredible, but we’ve got to get through that semi-final first!”

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Brian 24 days ago

Well earned accolade from her teammates. She should be one of the first two or three names on the team sheet. Such a self-effacing and well-rounded girl as well. Best #8 in the world.

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Turlough 59 minutes ago
'Let them keep talking' - Mike Catt claps back over Bok remarks

“You want that – not hatred – but whatever it is that stirs it all up. It’s good.” Agree with this. If you can put a common motivating idea in all your players heads during a game it can produce a real Team perfromance. Erasmus is pretty expert at this. It is quite clear that the comments by Etzebeth, Allende and others were not coincidence and were actioned to create animoisty before the series in order to galvanise the South African mind set. While I understand it, I don’t like it. They result in unnessary vitriol between supporters and for what? I don’t think any of the SA players seriously believe any of these claims and with Ireland ignoring them Erasmus won’t get the escalation he seeks. The vitriol shown by some SA and indeed NZ supporters is extremely weird for NH supporters (OK, maybe England have felt it) but it just feels very odd over a sport. Ireland were more or less sh1t for the first 100 years of their rugby, they have improved significantly in the last 25 to be in a position around now (it may not last) to go into a match with the big guns with a real shot of winning. The reaction to this from some SH supporters has been bizarre with conspiracy theories of ‘Arrogance’ fueling abuse from supporters and even NZ players to Irish crowds during the world cup. I love International rugby and the comraderie between supporters. I genuinely dread and dislike the atmosphere around games with the southern giants. They take this very personally. NH teams: play them, try and beat them, enjoy the craic with their players and supporters and wish them well. SH teams wish them well and they call you arrogant in the press months later. Its just a matter of try and beat them and then good riddance til the next time.

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