'I literally said to him, 'whatever money you have left in the budget, give me an offer''
When Matt Scott told his wife that Leicester Tigers had offered him a contract, bringing four months of gnawing uncertainty to an end, she burst into tears. With their first child on the way and his Edinburgh deal expiring, Tigers’ intervention was merciful deliverance.
Scott is happy with his lot now. He feels deeply fortunate to have signed for one of the game’s storied old giants when so many of his friends are scrabbling around with nothing in a market smithereened by coronavirus. He doesn’t look back with bitterness at the way he left – or was forced to leave – Edinburgh, but there is a significant degree of disappointment in how the whole episode unfolded.
In November, the centre was verbally offered a new three-year deal. He and his agent were given several weeks to mull over the terms, and tell the club whether he wanted to sign. When he went back to answer in the affirmative, he was told the offer no longer existed.
“It wasn’t like I’d been offered something and then threw it in the bin and was taking ages,” Scott tells RugbyPass. “I came back within their deadline and said we’d take it. They said there wasn’t an offer in the first place, the picture had changed and the pieces of the jigsaw just wouldn’t fit with me in it. Financially, they couldn’t afford to keep me on.
“I was really perplexed; I didn’t understand why it was happening. They said they thought I didn’t want to stay. There was just a complete breakdown in communication.
“I just felt a bit let down because I’d been at the club for a long time and if they were getting the impression that I maybe didn’t want to stay, or that the offer wasn’t going to be on the table, I would have liked them to have said so. I felt like I hadn’t done anything wrong.
“My wife was really looking forward to staying for another three years and we were looking to start a family. It was just gutting, to be honest.”
Richard Cockerill, the pugnacious little coach who has transformed Edinburgh with an iron fist, does not want for centres. Still, losing Scott is a brutal blow. For much of the truncated season, he was one of the PRO14’s most effective and canny midfielders. At 29, he is in the shape of his life, svelte and swaggering and free from the injuries that dogged him when he returned for a second spell from Gloucester two years ago.
When it became clear the new offer had evaporated, he was nonplussed. Immediately, he picked up the phone to Cockerill, but it was too late. Edinburgh needed a fly-half to replace Simon Hickey and the money earmarked for Scott was hoovered up elsewhere.
“I literally said to him, ‘whatever money you have left in the budget, give me an offer. I’m happy to take a pay cut and stay’,” Scott reveals.
“I’m leaving all my best mates at the club and after being told certain things like they’re not looking at anyone else and then they sign two other centres [Jordan Venter and Matt Gordon].
“I know they’re not established internationals, and I get that I would demand a higher salary, and I was injured a fair bit – I understand that’s rugby at the moment, it’s very much a business, you’re a commodity as a player, you’re not really a person.
“It’s easy to look at a stats sheet and say he’s played x number of minutes, but it doesn’t give you the whole picture of that guy and the value he brings to a squad.
“I understand that they don’t have an endless budget, but guys that are on the periphery of the Scotland team and playing well, they really should try and keep them. It was disappointing.”
Rugby is cutthroat and Scott’s predicament is far from uncommon, but it stung him that after almost 100 games and seven seasons across two stints this was how things ended at his boyhood club.
He worried too that people would see him as a mercenary, chasing a fat paycheque in England when Edinburgh made it plain that they didn’t have the cash to keep him. The reality is starkly different.
“I don’t want people to think I’ve come to Leicester for the money because that is certainly not the case,” he says.
‘A lot of American guys don’t know how to be a professional rugby player’
. @SDLegion head coach Scott Murray on:
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) June 27, 2020
“The money that Leicester were able to offer initially wasn’t good at all, but I didn’t have anything, and I just was really taken by what they had to say about me and the club, how they have been underachieving but have recruited really well off the pitch with [former Springbok strength and conditioning coach] Aled Walters, Mike Ford, and Steve Borthwick, whose view I really liked.
“I just said, ‘look, I want to make this work’, and we managed to work out the finer details. When I told my wife, she started crying – ‘Oh my god, we’ve actually got something!’
“I’ve come out of it ok, I’ve managed to get a contract – imagine I hadn’t, with a baby on the way. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve played international rugby and got a bit of a reputation, but there are guys who really toil, who have to move a lot, who don’t make much money, don’t get much appreciation from coaches.
“I just feel really happy and incredibly fortunate. I spoke to a lot of really good players who had nothing, and I managed to sign for one of the biggest clubs in Europe.”
This feels like a seminal summer for the Tigers, a juggernaut of English rugby who have been on their knees for far too long. In Borthwick, they have a hugely respected operator starting out as a head coach, and they are tooling up in a serious way with Nemani Nadolo, Cyle Brink, Blake Enever and Scott himself joining the playing staff.
A premier Leicester backline come August might feature Ben Youngs and George Ford at half-back, Scott and Manu Tuilagi in the centres and a back-three of Nadolo, Telusa Veainu and Jordan Olowofela. It’s a riveting prospect.
“Steve said it’s exciting we both get to be there at the start of rebuilding one of the biggest clubs in Europe and getting them back to where they belong – really exciting,” Scott says.“There’s a part of you that’s like, jees, these rebuilding phases at clubs, I’ve done it a number of times, but there’s just a really good feeling about these coaches and these players, looking at the team we can put out on paper is phenomenal.
“Everything is there to succeed and I’d love to be at a club that wins consistently. We were getting there with Edinburgh for sure, every player wants to win a major trophy before they hang up their boots, and hopefully after a lot of hard work we can do something at Leicester.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) June 27, 2020
After breaking back into Gregor Townsend’s Six Nations squad this season, Scott yearns to add to his 39 Scotland caps, the last of which came almost exactly three years ago in a sensational toppling of the Wallabies in Sydney.
Borthwick is getting his mitts on him at a time when he has never been better equipped to bloom. Last term, he spent many dark and near-ruinous months out with concussion symptoms that would not abate. The headaches made him irritable; the medication to ease the pain turned him into a zombie. But coming through the torment taught him about himself and his body and he attacked this campaign with a ferocious vigour.
“I had that same sort of feeling whenever I stepped onto the pitch that first season at Gloucester where I felt, I’m definitely going to score today, I’m going to make breaks today, I’m going to get turnovers today,” he says.
— Leicester Tigers (@LeicesterTigers) April 29, 2020
“It’s an amazing bunch at Edinburgh, so tight off the field, and I guess that comes when you have a coach who is demanding on the players. Sometimes the atmosphere can be difficult to be positive all the time and it really brought us together.
“The squad they’ve got is ridiculous, the depth they’ve got in some positions with young guys coming through, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see them reaching semi-finals and finals more often. I’ll miss them a lot.”
On 1st July, Scott is free to start training with Leicester. He moved south last week and is busy preparing his new home for its third and precious occupant, due to arrive in October. There is no animosity now towards Edinburgh, the club he loves, far less the great friends that are left behind, only a deep sense of gratitude for the new beginnings he is ready to seize.
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