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The unlikely pathway that unearthed Scouse try-scoring menace Johnny Matthews

By Simon Thomas
Sione Tuipulotu (L) and Johnny Matthews (R) of Glasgow Warriors react to players of the Ospreys after Glasgow Warriors score a try during the United Rugby Championship match between the Ospreys and Glasgow Warriors at the Swansea.com Stadium on November 11, 2023 in Swansea, Wales. (Photo by Athena Pictures/Getty Images)

BKT URC top try-scorer Johnny Matthews is proof there’s more than one path to rugby stardom.

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The hooker was 26 before he signed his first professional contract with Glasgow Warriors.

Moreover, his Scouse accent doesn’t automatically suggest a Scotland international.

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But that’s precisely what he is, having made his Test debut during the World Cup, and he’s now a strong contender for the Guinness Six Nations on the back of his try-scoring exploits.

The 30-year-old has touched down eight times in the league this season, two more than his nearest rivals.

He was on the scoresheet once again last weekend, against Munster, having already claimed doubles versus Ulster, Ospreys and the DHL Stormers.

That’s taken him up to fifth on Glasgow’s all-time list with 32. Remarkably, that’s one more than Stuart Hogg.

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It’s some story and an unusual one at that.

Matthews was born and raised in Liverpool, which influenced the sport he initially focused on.

“I was more into football when I was younger,” he says.

“Rugby wasn’t necessarily the biggest thing in Liverpool.

“There was pretty limited access to it, to be honest.

“I could tell you every Everton team that played, but maybe not any rugby players.”

Johnny Matthews
Johnny Matthews of Glasgow Warriors scores his fifth Try during the EPCR Challenge Cup Round of Sixteen match between Glasgow Warriors v Dragons RFC at Scotstoun Stadium on April 01, 2023 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Ashley Allen/Getty Images)

However, things changed when he attended St Edward’s College, the school which produced England oval ball stars Mike Slemen and Kyran Bracken.

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That led to him playing for Liverpool Collegiate RFC, before linking up with Leeds as a teenager.

From there, he had spells with Manchester-based Sedgley Park, Otley and Rotherham as he trod the rugby boards in the north of England.

But then, in 2017, came the big move as he headed up to Scotland, where his mother was born.

“I had done some pathway stuff with the Exiles and my coach there, Rob Brierley, got in touch and said there might be an opportunity for me up in Scotland with one of the Premiership teams which might lead into something else,” he explains.

So it was that Matthews spent “two great years” with Edinburgh club Boroughmuir before being signed up by Glasgow Warriors, initially as cover during the 2019 World Cup and then on a permanent basis.

He has gone from strength to strength since then, making his mark with his all-action approach and predatory prowess.

In May 2022, he became the first Glasgow hooker to score a hat-trick of tries, against Zebre Parma at Scotstoun.

Then, in April of this year, he set a new club record, as the first player in Warriors history to score five tries in a match, during a European Challenge Cup victory over Dragons RFC.

But then crossing the whitewash is nothing new to him. In one season with Sedgley Park, he touched down 29 times in 26 appearances.

So how does he explain his prolific strike-rate?

Johnny Matthews
Johnny Matthews of Scotland celebrates scoring the team’s tenth try with teammates during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between Scotland and Romania at Stade Pierre Mauroy on September 30, 2023 in Lille, France. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

“It’s something I’ve tried to have as part of my game and I have always been able to find the line,” he said.

“But I’ve also been lucky enough to play in sides that had fantastic mauls. I have been on the back of a very good driving maul here for the past couple of years.

“I am always quick to credit the lads in front, especially with the maul, because without them the man at the back wouldn’t be able to get the ball over the line.

“We do work really hard on it in training and I think that shows through.”

But it’s not just the maul Matthews scores from, as demonstrated by his burst down the touchline for his second against Ulster in Round 6.

“It was great interplay by backs and forwards to create the overlap for me,” he says modestly.

“It just opened up in front of me and I was just happy I managed to finish it.

“I’ve just happened to be in the right place at the right time to get on the end of some good team tries.

“The main thing is winning games. If I happen to be the one that gets the ball down, that’s a bonus.”

As befits a serial scorer, Matthews has developed a special try celebration, mirroring that of former Everton striker Richarlison.

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“I just dance about like a pigeon!” he says.

He’s now an international try-scorer too, having marked his Test debut with a touchdown against Romania in Lille after being called up to Scotland’s World Cup squad as a replacement.

So far, he has just the one cap to his name, but you wouldn’t bet against him adding to that tally in the Six Nations and beyond.

His form is pretty hard to ignore and he will be looking to carry that into the Investec Champions Cup where Glasgow Warriors are home to Northampton and away to Bayonne over the next couple of weeks.

Matthews may be something of a late developer, but he is certainly making the most of his time in top flight rugby now.

“I think it shows there’s definitely a different pathway to get into the professional game rather than just going through the Academy system,” he said.

“It’s maybe some hope for those boys that didn’t quite make it in the early stages that if you keep plying your trade and keep performing, the opportunities will come later on.”

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