The Big Interview: Josh Matavesi
A cup semi-final is always an important occasion for any club – but for Josh Matavesi, Newcastle Falcons’ date with Northampton Saints could take on even greater significance.
Following the highs of last year, which saw them achieve a top four Premiership finish, Falcons have struggled in the league this season and find themselves bottom of the table.
But a rousing second-half display against Sale Sharks last time out saw Newcastle claim a bonus-point victory to book their Premiership Rugby Cup semi-final place as Pool 1 winners.
And Matavesi hopes another win against Northampton at Franklin’s Gardens – and a shot at silverware – could provide the morale-boosting antidote to Newcastle’s season.
“It was good to get the win as we’d been searching for one for a while,” said the Cornish-Fijian.
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“Getting a victory was what we needed and the performance was pleasing.
“I’m hoping we can take that confidence and play into Saturday. It could be the change that we needed – it’s come at a good time just before a big block of games.
“We said at the start of the season any competition we’re in, we’re looking to win it. If we can get to the final, it would be a huge morale boost for the squad but we’re taking every game as it comes.
“We’re lucky because we’ve been to Northampton a couple of times over the last few seasons and won, so it’s a place we don’t fear and we can go and express ourselves there.
“We’re at a place at the minute where we’re just looking to play a good brand of rugby and get that enjoyment back into our squad, which is what’s been missing for the last couple of weeks .”
The Newcastle players enjoyed a mid-season training camp in Kendal during the week, which Matavesi said was a chance to get away from the “normality” of Kingston Park.
Falcons reached the last four of the Premiership Rugby Cup’s previous incarnation – the Anglo Welsh Cup – last season but were knocked out by eventual champions Exeter.
Matavesi started against Chiefs that day at Sandy Park as Falcons surrendered a 17-7 half-time lead and the 28-year-old insists they have no intention of suffering the same fate again.
“We went down with a full-strength squad to Exeter and they put out their B team but they played the conditions a lot better. They made less errors at Sandy Park,” he said.
“But this is a different group this year – we’ve lost a lot of the older heads in our squad, so we’ve got a younger group coming through but it’s a group that’s not scared of anyone.
“They’re not scared to express themselves on the pitch, which is nice – they don’t have that fear, so they just crack on and play rugby which is good.
“You’ve got people like Zach Kibirige on the wing and Simon Uzokwe, who made a massive amount of carries last week against Sale. These guys are in and around the edges of the squad but they’re the ones pushing through now and it’s nice to see.”
Matavesi admits he has no idea why it hasn’t clicked for Falcons in the league this season, where they have won only three times, like it has in the Premiership Rugby Cup.
“If I knew that, I’d get paid more,” he said when asked to put his finger on Falcons’ differing fortunes in the two competitions. “I think the cup brings a different element of pressure.
“We’ve been able to rotate some of the squad. The Premiership’s such a tough gig – it’s a grind and a lot of pressure on each game because there’s relegation and promotion involved.
“I think every team has got stronger as well – that plays a part – and because of last year, everyone’s taken us a bit more seriously as before there wasn’t that much respect.”
But whatever happens this season, Matavesi’s teenage years – which were struck by tragedy when his mother died when he was 13 – means he approaches rugby with a different perspective to most.
“It still motivates me to this day,” said Matavesi, who signed his first professional contract with Exeter Chiefs at 18. “When something like that happens, you go one way or the other.
“I had a friend at school who lost his brother and he went the other way, so you can definitely see how things can go a different way with a couple of decisions.
“But I had a good group of teachers at school who helped me knuckle down. I had Robin Cowling at Exeter who was there whenever I needed. He was a massive support, they were amazing.
“It does put things into perspective, but then it also makes you realise how lucky you are and makes you want to do better. That’s really important. It keeps me driven.
“You only lose a game. It’s not the end of the world, is it? A win’s a win and a loss is a loss – I get to go home and see my family and my kids.”