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'At the break down it's about being a nuisance, being more like Packer!'

By Lucy Lomax
Marlie Packer and Alex Matthews of England pose with the trophy after winning the Grand Slam following their victory in the TikTok Women's Six Nations match between France and England at Stade Jean Dauger on April 30, 2022 in Bayonne, France. (Photo by Lionel Hahn - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images )

Alex Matthews is a player who sets extremely high standards for herself. The World Cup winner has long been a part of the England set up in sevens and 15s.

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Being a success in both formats of the game, it’s only through gritty determination, after having her England sevens contract terminated due to the pandemic, that the flanker has managed to work her way back into the highly competitive number six shirt for the Red Roses.

Not satisfied with standing still, the 28-year-old recently announced a move to Gloucester-Hartpury from Worcester Warriors and will join up with the squad after the World Cup. Matthews explained why she decided to switch clubs, including the want to be tested.

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Scotland’s Chloe Rollie on her career to date and preparing for the World Cup | Tunnel Talk | Episode 2
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Scotland’s Chloe Rollie on her career to date and preparing for the World Cup | Tunnel Talk | Episode 2

“I actually hadn’t planned to leave Worcester,” said the back row. “During the Six Nations all the girls were chatting around their clubs and what they’re doing which got me thinking maybe I should just have a little look around. I was at Richmond all the way through my early days and I don’t really move around clubs so I thought I best have a little look.

“I bought a house in Gloucester during lockdown which is only around half an hour away from Hartpury University and I struggled with the longer journeys back and forth to Worcester, so that was a major factor in my decision. I was spending two hours in the car with my hips getting tight and counteracting the physio I’d be getting, so now I’m getting older, the decision is better for my body.

“You do feel that loyalty though, which did play on my mind. Worcester’s growth over the past the few seasons has been incredible and I didn’t want me leaving to be a reflection on them.

“I still want to be pushed and challenged and I want people to question me and pull me up on things and tell me when it’s not good enough. I want to keep my standards high and sometimes you need that boost from other people.

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“Lynnie (Sean Lynn, Gloucester-Hartpury Head Coach) is so good with people, I went to Hartpury College and knew a bit about him anyway, but chatting to the staff and what they said impressed me. They reinforced how it’s not just about you as a player but you as a person and were asking how can we help your life outside of rugby, which I really like and is a big value of mine.”

Matthews was the youngest member of the England squad when they won the World Cup back in 2014, and remembers her 21st Birthday being spent in camp with a big England shirt Birthday cake and Marlie Packer gifting her a champagne bottle filled with Celebration chocolates which she ‘had to share’.

Matthews played in that World Cup final victory and her conscientious and kind-hearted personality, comes across when asked about her best memories from the win and the tournament in general.

“I wasn’t really part of the training squad leading up to the tournament because I had my first big hip operation in the lead up, so I only just made selection. I think I got back fit two weeks before selection.

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“The best part was just being around the older girls. I was naïve going into the final, I didn’t have the experience or history of how many finals we had come so close and lost to New Zealand. But it was a relief to be honest. I remember seeing how much it meant to players like Sophie Hemming and Nolli (Danielle Waterman).”

One player who also played in that final and is currently on world-topping form is Matthew’s good friend and back row partner Packer.

England Rugby recently put out a video about the pair being polar opposites but a world class combination both on and off the pitch.

Matthews laughs, “we’ve been rooming together since before the 2014 World Cup and in sevens we roomed together as well.

“We’ve been close all along but we’re completely the opposite. But it’s funny because any new coaches that come in are so surprised we room together, but we just work so well. She’s loud and energetic and I’m reserved and enjoy my quiet time but we’ve got a good balance.

“Marlie is just a ball of energy, I don’t know how she does it. On the fitness shuttle tests, she won’t do as well but stick a ball in front of her and she just won’t stop. She’s great to play with.”

Both flankers had a strong Six Nations but Matthews admits it took her a while to settle back into the England 15s daily routine from sevens and how the transition affected her performance.

“It was hard. Last season I don’t feel I performed at all up until the Six Nations and for me if I feel comfortable and valued then I’ll play better so I think it takes me a while to get back into the environment.

“Last season I got frustrated with myself. I was coming off the bench in the Autumns for England and I feel it when I’m not playing the game I want to play. I felt I had a point to prove.

“Back in Autumns Mids (Simmon Middleton, England Head Coach) was like ‘what’s wrong with being on the bench?’ and it changed my perspective as obviously the game has changed and the bench is so important. Bench players can win you the game and it’s going to be to be crucial coming up to the World Cup. So yeah, I now have a different perspective about that!”

It’s curious as an outsider looking at a player like Matthews and asking where they could still improve, but as any good player will tell you, there’s always room for improvement.

“For me, coming from sevens, the breakdown is completely different from the 15s game, and I need to keep working and learning around it. In sevens as soon as you have your hands on the ball it’s a turnover but in 15s you’ve got to stick on it a bit longer.

“Also, for me it’s about getting used to having so many bodies around that breakdown area, I see them and I think let’s get out and fill the field in defence but actually, it’s about slowing the breakdown down and being a nuisance. It’s about being a bit more like Packer!”

With the World Cup in October, Matthews has the rare privilege of being able to draw on both positive and negative experiences from two World Cup finals. The most recent being the 2017 loss to New Zealand in Belfast.

“The 2017 result was upsetting initially and I spent a good few weeks feeling so disappointed. Thinking things like what could I have done better and just overplaying it in my head but at the end of the day, we did all we could in the lead up to it and we just didn’t react on the pitch.

“It was our own fault for not adapting to what they were doing and didn’t really have any answers. That World Cup definitely changed my mindset going into games and I try not to put too much pressure on myself. It’s only rugby at the end of the day.”

Matthews speaks confidently about England’s approach leading up to the World Cup so far and the positive team environment.

“I’m loving being with England at the moment. I have a love-hate relationship with pre-season, but I love training and if I’m ever having a down day, one of the team will pull you out of it. Maud (Muir) and Connie (Powell) make me laugh- it’s their odd throw-away comments!”

And Matthews is well aware of the necessity to harness the team spirit and stick together as a squad when on opposition turf this Autumn.

“It’ll be interesting potentially playing New Zealand in their back yard. Back in 2017 we played them before one of the British and Irish Lions games and walking down the street we had people rolling down their windows, beeping and shouting at us and you want to play in that atmosphere. It’s no different to playing away in France, they heckle and boo and we love it.

“As far as the Black Ferns are concerned, you can’t underestimate them and the work they’ll be doing behind closed doors now will be the ridiculous. Them and France will throw things at us, but we will be prepared for it all.”

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