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‘Test rugby is a big commitment and I have done it for 10 years but if they asked I would love to’

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Josh Matavesi is backing Fiji to make a major impact in the new Eight Nations tournament despite the squad never having trained under new coach Vern Cotter and nearly a year having passed since they played a test fixture.

While the odds seem stacked against the Fijians, who have been drawn in a four-team pool with France, Scotland and Italy in the new tournament being played over the four weekends from 13 November to 6 December, Bath centre Matavesi knows all about the world-class talent available to Cotter.

The former Scotland and Montpellier head coach will hold his first training camp with the squad in France on October 25, following what has become a “ normal” preparation for Fiji. This will be Fiji’s fourth camp to be held in France and recognises the fact that the majority of their professional players are based in Europe. The training camp held prior to the 2019 Rugby World Cup featured 18 players based in France and 14 from the UK and Cotter will name a similar squad next week.

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Nadolo talks to RugbyPass

Cotter, who replaced John McKee in January, can call upon stars including Semi Radradra, who scored a brilliant solo try for Bristol in their big European Challenge Cup win over Dragons, Glasgow’s Leone Nakawara, Viliame Mata at Edinburgh, Leicester’s Kini Murimuvalu, Peceli Yato at Clermont, La Rochelle’s Levani Botia and Joshua Tuisova at Lyon. The wide range of talent available to Cotter is highlighted by the fact Brive have seven Fijian’s in their squad with another four at Castres. Cotter has also been trying to persuade players based in New Zealand to opt for Fiji rather than try for All Blacks honours.

Matavesi retired from test rugby after the World Cup which saw Fiji lose their final pool match 29-17 to Wales and they have not played a test since that contest. While he opted to call it a day after winning 24 caps, Matavesi, who is still only 29, admits the joy he is getting from helping Bath bid for the Gallagher Premiership title has recharged his rugby batteries and he would consider a return to national colours if Cotter made that call.

Matavesi, who is preparing for Bath’s home clash with Gloucester when 1,00 fans will be allowed in the ground on Tuesday, told RugbyPass: “Many of the Fiji players in Europe are the best at their clubs and it is a great to be involved in the Eight Nations tournament. The benefits that come with being in this tournament will be fantastic for the boys and the player pool will grow with more fixtures and we will get even better. I hope the boys go out and be brave, show their style of play.

“Test rugby is a big commitment and I have done it for 10 years and if they asked I would love to, but let’s see what happens. During lockdown I really missed the game and I told myself I would just enjoy rugby when it restarted. If Vern wants me then we can have a conversation.

“I was involved in our camp in Toulouse last year before the World Cup and while you cannot do a lot physically you can go through strategy and team values. You do get a lot out of it and can bond with the coaches and it will be important to get face to face with Vern and understand what it’s like to work with and what the vibe is.”

The Matavesi family will be supplying hooker Sam to the Fiji squad and he is currently with Northampton and the youngest member of the clan – Joel – helped Newcastle return to the Premiership which means all three brothers will be operating in the top flight of English rugby next season.

Bath have moved up to third in the Premiership and Matavesi has been at the heart of their impressive run and added: “We really work hard at our shape in attack at Bath and there is more than one way to skin a cat and we back ourselves to have the courage to go wide but we also have the pack which is going really well. We are not trying to be the All Blacks – just the best we can be.

“Our win at Sale was really important and we imposed our style of rugby of them and that was credit to the forwards who put their bodies on the line. It is fantastic that the fans will be back against Gloucester and I am sure the 1,000 will generate enough noise to make up for those who would love to be there. Ben Spencer joined from Saracens, is a really good guy and a great influence on the other scrum-halves and we want to play quick but also have that kicking game.

“Our target is to get to the Premiership final but we have a massive game against Gloucester and then play Saracens. Momentum is with us but we cannot afford to get ahead of ourselves.”

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Gallagher Premiership End of Season Awards

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After 22 rounds, eight months and three lockdowns, the Gallagher Premiership is down to four teams in the race to be crowned kings of English rugby.

This weekend sees reigning champions Exeter Chiefs resume their title defence, with Sale Sharks, Bristol Bears and Harlequins all vying to de-throne the Devonians.

With both semi-finals live and exclusive on BT Sport on Saturday afternoon, what better time to celebrate an extraordinary season of domestic rugby by handing out a few virtual BT Sport gongs.

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Join the home of live sport for just £25 per month. Get instant access to the BT Sport app, with no contract and no BT broadband required.

Premiership Player of the Year

Winner: Sam Simmonds (Exeter Chiefs)

Honourable mentions: Jasper Wiese (Leicester Tigers), Piers O’Conor (Bristol Bears) and Danny Care (Harlequins)

It’s impossible to look past Sam Simmonds for this accolade.

Having starred in Exeter’s league and European Cup double-winning campaign last year the number eight has gone from strength to strength in 2021.

Indeed the Chiefs forward’s game has reached new heights with a record-breaking try-scoring spree, earning a shock call up to Warren Gatland’s British & Irish Lions squad. 

Undeterred by his ongoing omission from Eddie Jones’ England plans, the 26-year-old has used his estrangement from the international scene as motivation to spearhead Exeter’s bid for back-to-back Premiership crowns.

In May he scored a hat-trick in front of Jones to break Christian Wade’s record for the most tries in a single season.

His current tally stands at 20, eight more than his nearest challenger Danny Care, and few would bet against him adding to that number as Exeter prepare to face Sale for a place in next weekend’s Twickenham final.

Most Premiership tries 2020/21

Sam Simmonds (Exeter Chiefs) – 20 tries

Danny Care (Harlequins) – 12 tries

Josh Bassett (Wasps) – 9 tries

Alex Dombrandt (Harlequins) – 9 tries

Byron McGuigan (Sale Sharks) – 9 tries

“Sam has been phenomenal this year,” BT Sport’s Ugo Monye told Premiership Rugby’s website.

“I think he started the season fuelled by bitter disappointment (through lack of England selection), but he has focused on it in the right way, to become a record-breaker, help his team into the Gallagher Premiership Rugby semi-finals and is now a British and Irish Lion.

“He has excelled in a year where it has been tough for all players in Gallagher Premiership Rugby, with back-to-back seasons and not much time off. But he hasn’t let off from being European player of the year last season to Premiership player of the year this season, which is outstanding.

“His season has been one of the best individual seasons in Premiership history. I think when you are breaking any sort of record, it has to be put down as a memorable year.

“He has smashed the try record – not only beaten it but smashed it. That is the kind of form he has been in.

“It is unbelievable when you consider just how many talented players we have in Gallagher Premiership Rugby, and yet he has been the shining star, among a galaxy of superstars.”

Premiership Young Player of the Year

Winner: Marcus Smith (Harlequins)

Honourable mentions: Ioan Lloyd (Bristol), Ollie Hassell-Collins (London Irish) and Freddie Steward (Leicester Tigers)

Marcus Smith has been playing at the highest level for so long it seems wrong to place him in this category, but the fly-half is still only 22.

The season began with lingering question marks around the Quins playmaker’s consistency and reliability in defence, but Smith has silenced his naysayers.

His dazzling form and metronomic record with the boot have been instrumental in Quins’ return to the play-offs after a seven-year absence.

Smith book-ended the regular season as the highest points-scoring individual in the entire league, racking up 270 points in total, 82 more than Sale Sharks’ AJ MacGinty who was next in the rankings.

An elusive and dangerous runner, Smith has once again been one of the most exciting players to watch in the Premiership as Quins prepare for a return to the semi-finals with Bristol Bears standing in between them and a first final for 13 years.

Most Premiership points 2020/21

Marcus Smith (Harlequins) – 270 points

AJ MacGinty (Sale Sharks) – 188 points

Paddy Jackson (London Irish) – 177 points

Joe Simmonds (Exeter Chiefs) – 156 points

Rhys Priestland (Bath) – 150 points

Smith’s stellar year has caught the eye of Jones as the Australian looks to re-build his side after a fifth-placed finish in the 2021 Six Nations.

Jones has described Smith’s development as “really positive” in his clearest indication yet that the 22-year-old will earn a first international cap later this summer.

While the Quins playmaker faced the Barbarians two years ago and impressed in a non-cap match, he has been made to wait for another opportunity but that looks set to change following a mature campaign as playmaker-in-chief at Quins.

“What we are seeing from him is more like when he played at Brighton College. I remember watching him in 2015 at Brighton College and when there was something on, he took it and maybe for a period of time he was more likely to be a pattern player.

“And I think he is getting a nice balance in his game between understanding the responsibilities of getting the team organised, but then playing what is in front of him. I think his development is really positive.”

Premiership Director of Rugby of the Season

Winner: Pat Lam (Bristol)

Honourable mentions: Steve Borthwick (Leicester), Billy Millard (Harlequins) and Alex Sanderson (Sale Sharks)

Having delivered Bristol’s first ever European trophy last season, Lam is on the verge of creating more club history as the Bears chase a maiden Premiership crown.

The West Country giants have enjoyed a meteoric rise to English rugby’s top table under Lam’s stewardship.

The former Samoa captain began his coaching career with Scotland at the 2003 World Cup, before taking up coaching roles at the Blues and at Connacht in Ireland. Since moving to south-west England from Ireland he has revitalised the Bears.

Last season he navigated the Bears to a third-place finish before they ultimately lost out to Wasps in the semi-finals.

This time around the 52-year-old has helped his side finish top of the pile in the regular season, edging out defending champions Exeter Chiefs.

The Bears responded brilliantly to a narrow opening day defeat at Wasps, winning six rounds on the spin, to set the tone for a magnificent season.

A particular highlight of the campaign for Lam’s side was the stunning comeback win at Bath Rugby in May that secured their last-four place.

Despite going 15 points down to their local rivals in the first half, the Bears roared back to a 40-20 victory.

If Bristol can end their semi-final hoodoo with victory over Harlequins in the last four, few would be against the West Country outfit going on to win a maiden Premiership title.

Premiership Match of the Season

Winner: London Irish 34-34 Bristol Bears

Honourable mentions: Bristol 35-33 Harlequins, Bath 44-52 Wasps and Harlequins 48-46 Wasps

Eighty-eight points, nine tries and a sin-binning: this game had it all as London Irish and Bristol Bears slugged it out in a remarkable high-scoring draw from round 10.

Irish could even have snatched victory in stoppage time, but Tom Parton’s pass inside was knocked on with the try-line begging.

Premiership Try of the Season

Winner: Paolo Odowgu

For pure invention, skill and raw pace, Wasps star and England new-boy Paolo Odowgu’s scintillating solo score against Bath was our favourite try from another enthralling season of top-flight rugby.

Other nominees:

10. Harry Wells

9, Harvey Skinner

8. Ollie Hassell-Collins

7. Josh Hodge

6. Adam Radwan

5. Nathan Earle

4. Semi Radrada

3. Tom O’Flaherty

2. Siva Naulago

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Premiership Rugby unhappy at having to reduce crowd to 10,000 for Grand Final

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“For the fans, all the people who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes and most importantly the clubs and players this is a huge blow”

Twickenham stadium administered more than 10,000 vaccinations in one day last month
Twickenham stadium administered more than 10,000 vaccinations in one day last month

Premiership Rugby bosses feel “let down” at being forced to reduce their capacity to 10,000 for this month’s Grand Final.

The winners of today’s semi-finals meet at Twickenham a week today where there will now be 72,000 empty seats.

The decision follows Wimbledon being told its men’s and women’s finals can be played in front of full capacity crowds as it is being treated as a ‘fan pilot’.

PRL’s appeal to the Government, and their application to have the final included as one of the ‘test events’, so 20,000 could attend safely with Covid-certification, were turned down.

They have been left with no alternative but to refund all tickets purchased on general sale.

Mark Brittain, PRL’s chief commercial officer, said: “The safety of everyone attending the Final is our priority, but it is frustrating that we weren’t selected on the list of events that can be part of the pilot programme.







Wimbledon’s Centre Court will be full for next month’s men’s and women’s singles finals…










…but only 10,000 will be permitted inside Twickenham for the Premiership Rugby Final on June 26
(

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Action Images via Reuters)



“We could have welcomed 20,000 socially-distanced supporters safely to Twickenham for an unforgettable day out to watch the crowning of the champions England. We have seen that snatched away from us.

“For the fans, all the people who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes and most importantly the clubs and players this is a huge blow.

“We have continued to push, but along with many other sporting and non-sporting events we have been let down. “



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“It makes you feel very proud”

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Sam James reached 150 appearances for his boyhood club earlier this season

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When you walk towards the sports hall at Wilmslow High School, a wall is dedicated to some of the sporting talents who are now living the dream.

Former pupils such as Millie Turner [Manchester United] and Oskar Hirskyji-Douglas [England Sevens] are proudly showcased by the North West institution and their influence is still a source of inspiration for many budding athletes at the school.

But there is always a name of an ex-student which repeatedly crops up.

That student is Sam James, who this weekend is set to play in Sale Sharks’ first Premiership semi-final for 15 years. Of course, he may not be the only James on show against Exeter Chiefs as brother Luke is also another prodigious talent to graduate from Wilmslow and both siblings are still held in high regard by their secondary school.

“Any time you watch Sale when you see Sam or Luke play, there is a huge sense of pride that they have come through the ranks at Wilmslow High School and we played a small part in their development,” says Matt Bebbington who was one of Sam’s former coaches at WHS.

James’ journey to this stage of his career is one which certainly falls under the bracket of ‘boyhood dreams.’ Back in 2006 – when Sale last lifted the league title – he was a ball boy for their semi-final victory over Wasps at Edgeley Park before he watched the final at Manchester Rugby Club as his heroes brought the trophy home.

A decade and a half later, James is hoping to follow in the footsteps of his idols having become one of the leading stars for this current Sharks outfit. Eight years ago, the versatile back made his Premiership debut against Northampton Saints and this season, he reached 150 appearances for the club he grew up supporting.

“It is surreal that he has gone from being a ball boy to where he is now!” James’s Dad, Neil, tells TRU. “We had season tickets and we used to go with friends to Edgeley Park. One great memory when Sam was ball boy was when Richard Wigglesworth was scrum-half for Sale. The ball went off the pitch, Sam passed it back on and Wiggy said something like ‘nice pass!’ It is a bit surreal seeing that he is now one of the players and doing his stuff on the pitch for Sale.”

After his father had first taken him down to Manchester as a four-year-old because he was “tearing up the back garden,” James was first spotted by Sale aged 13. His selection at county level for Cheshire also put him on the Sharks’ radar and remembering his roots is never too far away.

“I think where Sale are now is not only massive for the club, but for the whole community,” James says. “There is a good buzz and it is more excitement than pressure. People have been waiting a long time to be back in the semis and there are those lifelong supporters who we want to do proud on Saturday.”

Being self-indulgent is not something you can associate with James and that is evident when speaking to anyone who knows him or anybody who has helped the 26-year-old on his journey.

“When he first got into the first team, I think he was a bit awe-struck,” Neil says. “Like any young person who makes that step, I think he was like ‘wow, this is great, I have done it,’ but I think when it settles in, they realise the hard work needs to begin.

“I think as a parent, your main aim is to turn out a level headed human being as they grow older and I think Sam has achieved that. Everyone you speak to does say to me and Julie [Neil’s wife] what a lovely lad he is. That makes you feel very proud.”

“He’s so grounded and a very humble bloke,” James’ best friend and former teammate Tom Watts, adds. “This is partly down to Sam’s parents who have done a cracking job in bringing up a genuine and humble man who turns out to be alright at rugby. I love watching him on TV when I can and seeing that mullet flow in the wind!”

Rugby has always been a huge part of James’ life. With his father being an exceptional player in his own right, a love for the sport seemed inevitable, but Sam’s ‘obsession’ around the game was clear during his school days.

When he was in Year 9, and with the help of coach Jonathan Leggett, his talents on the pitch were really starting to come to the fore and the group of people James was mixing with seemed to be addicted to rugby.

“When Johnny took over, it was clear Sam was an excellent player then, but around that team, they were all really good mates,” Bebbington adds.

“They were all really committed so they all never really missed training. I think they were the last set of lads that every break and lunch always had a rugby ball so on top of training for school, which no-one missed, on top of the stuff with Manchester and Wilmslow rugby clubs, at break and lunch, they would just be throwing a rugby ball around which you just don’t see anymore.

“The biggest point from me is what people probably don’t realise is Sam, at any given moment at school, had a rugby ball glued to his hands.”

“Certainly at school, his school teachers said he was always out at break time and lunchtime throwing a ball around!” Neil confirms. “At home, it was fitting everything in because he had so many other training sessions in the week so it was fitting in club rugby, school training sessions and then any county rugby because he was still involved in that and then the Sale stuff as well.

“He actually did play most of the matches and we wanted Sam to be involved in training as much as possible because we didn’t want him to become a prima donna who just turns up and plays the game.”

Bebbington is also quick to recall a school trip to northern Italy. Away from the pitch, James’ ‘really bad travel sickness’ is a memory that sticks out for his former coach, but it was the player’s exploits on the field that paved the way for him to transition into the 1st XV.

In 2010-11, he played an integral part in one of the most successful side’s WHS has ever had. That season, they won 21 of their 22 matches, lifted the Cheshire Cup and were only denied a place in the Daily Mail Cup final by a certain Elliot Daly who was the star of the show for Whitgift School.

“Sam got a late call up to make his debut for us in Year 11 against Manchester Grammar School which I think was in the Daily Mail Cup,” Bebbington continues. “It all happened quite quickly and he played 12 or 13 but I just remember even then, even though he was quite quiet and a little nervous, it was obvious he was an excellent player. He was brilliant in his own right, but he made the people around him look really good as well.

“Sam was then a massive part of that ‘golden era’ for us in 2010-11. We had a great season and that group of players were all round the best school side I have coached alongside team manager Roger Hancock who glued it all together.

“Those two years he was in Sixth Form and playing for us, that was the time where we were playing the top private schools in the north on a Saturday and then also through the Daily Mail Cup. Sam, without a word of a lie, was dominant in his position.”

“The pure skill, passing off both hands, kicking off both feet, you name it, Sam could do it,” Watts adds. “Growing up, I think everyone knew he was going to make it.

“I can recall a couple of times when Sam got his hands on the ball in the centres and half of our team – ‘the fat ones’ – just stopped as we knew he was either going to score or create something so we knew exactly when to rest without getting shouted at by the coach.”

Once James had completed his studies at Wilmslow High, his career at Sale was now top of the agenda. He was on the books with Bebbington at Stockport for a short period, but the moment his father knew he could turn his dream into a reality was when he spoke to former Sharks’ Academy manager Dave Wilks.

“I think we went with the flow a lot of the time,” Neil adds. “We always knew he was a good player, but there are a lot of good players out there who fall by the wayside.

“I think the thing that got me was when he went up to Sale. Dave was really, really keen that Sam should progress and really show his talents. His first games were played in the Jets for Sale and he was saying to Sam to be confident out there because ‘he had it.’

“I think when he started saying that, we realised this could be a possible career for him and a possible step into the first team because Dave had such confidence that he was one of the stars coming through the academy.”

Since then, Wilks has been proved right 100 times over. James has hardly missed a fixture for Sale in the last five years and since Director of Rugby Alex Sanderson joined the club back in January, the status quo has not been interrupted.

After letting a home semi-final slip through their fingers following a quite remarkable fightback from Exeter last Saturday, James will be heading back down to Devon this weekend to face the current champions as Sale look to reach the Premiership final.

His family will be cheering him on from the stands as a “galvanised” Sharks side continue to work towards a “common goal” of lifting silverware. During our chat at the start of the week, James quite rightly points out that booking their place at Twickenham will be special for everyone at Sale, but his hometown of Wilmslow – and the surrounding areas – will continue to feel immense pride for one of their own.



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