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'Soft underbelly': What new boss Matson used think of Harlequins

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Tabai Matson has nothing but the highest praise for the title-winning Harlequins set-up he was asked to take charge of as new head of rugby in the recent off-season, describing his appointment as a real honour and privilege. However, the New Zealander has admitted there was a time not so long ago when he had a very different perspective of the London club. 


It was 2016/17 when Matson previously worked in the Premiership, guiding Bath as their head coach to a fifth-place finish. A family situation back home in New Zealand meant that he had to cut short his stay in England at the end of that season, but he didn’t forget what he thought of Harlequins at the time.

Four years ago, the John Kingston-led team finished in sixth place, seven points behind Bath, and the head-to-head matches between the clubs resulted in a one-point November home win for Quins that was reversed three months later by a 22-12 outcome at the Rec.

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Matt Dawson and Mike Brown on their favourite rugby memories
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Matt Dawson and Mike Brown on their favourite rugby memories

Those results gave Matson an unfavourable impression of the Londoners and he admitted to RugbyPass that how he felt about Harlequins in the past came up during this year’s five-round interview process. “They actually asked me that in my second interview,” he revealed.

“I said what our team [Bath] thought of them four years ago was they had a soft underbelly and they could be squeezed at the set-pieces and around some of the grittier parts of the game. Clearly, that wasn’t the case last year so the club has significantly shifted on since I was here four years ago.

“For me, it is a real honour,” he continued about being able to work again in England after his previous short-lived stay. “This is the closest and toughest club comp in the world. Any one of six, maybe even seven teams, could have definitely made the top this year and there are some (more) teams coming. So for me, it is really another opportunity to learn. It’s an amazing group of men so I am just feeling really privileged to be here and really excited. This team is the current champions and there are high expectations and I have got to be at my best to lead so that is a challenge for me daily.”


When Harlequins officially confirmed that Matson was their guy to replace Paul Gustard as head of rugby, they described him as “the outstanding candidate” which came as news to the Kiwi. It had been made known in the final weeks of last season that the recruitment process had come down to the last two, so Matson was amused when RugbyPass informed him on Wednesday afternoon about “the outstanding candidate” description that accompanied the news of his appointment.

Is that what they said? They had that line up for the other bloke as well,” he quipped when asked what made him the outstanding candidate. “It would be a few and clearly I was the last man standing. You’d have to ask them. Often when organisations go out to recruit they try and get the best candidate.

“What I found really interesting this time round was they were really clear on who they wanted as a person and where they had to go, what they had to do, how they had to get on the boat and paddle in a certain direction. They didn’t want me to hop on the boat and change the direction of the boat and that is probably the first time I have been involved in a process where they were really clear on where they were going.

“They asked me to jump on the boat and paddle in a certain direction. What was my ideal (quality)? One of the things I really value and if you look at the teams I have been with, relationships are the cornerstone to learning so if you want a group to move and grow then they need to feel they are in a safe and trusting environment. Maybe that was one of my remits.


“I have coached many teams, whether it be Fiji or the Maori All Blacks or the Chiefs that play an exciting brand, so maybe there was a piece there around that of ‘we need that positive intent’. And I had a really broad experience, including time here in the Premiership, Japan, Australia and France, so that broad experience also means that I am not going to come in here and try and stamp the wrong template on the club.”


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