Johannesburg - Bulls wing Duncan Matthews has fought many injury demons in his time as a rugby player, and that’s why making his debut against All Black monster wing Julian Savea didn’t worry him all too much.
According to the SuperSport website, the Bulls speedster has been one of the revelations of an otherwise forgetful season for the Pretoria side as he has surprised all that have written him off, ensuring a debut season in Super Rugby certainly has worked in his favour and repaid the belief the coaching staff have had in him.
And last Saturday he set Loftus Versfeld alight with his solo try, getting the ball from Warrick Gelant in space and doing what a winger loves to do best, run fast and hard, stepping inside and out to leave poor Malcolm Jaer at sixes and sevens as he powered his way in for the try.
The Kings’ may have had the last laugh on the scoreboard, but Matthews try was certainly one of the better ones this season and will have left a lasting impression in a season where highlights have been few and far between.
“Credit to Warrick Gelant there, he did well to give me ball in space and all I had to do was finish, and that’s what I did,” Matthews smiles about the try.
“I also thought I would go inside, but when I stepped inside I saw a whole lot of Kings’ players there on the inside, so I went outside and I saw there was only the wing to beat.”
The former Malmsbury scholar has had a torrid time with injuries – and now finally at the age of 23 is looking forward to a run where he can prove himself.
He has overcome six torn hamstrings, two knee injuries, a groin injury and a stress fracture in his back to make it back onto the field where many others would have failed. And that, overcoming these injury hurdles, has been the toughest part for him, so much so that playing against any opponent seems a lot easier.
“Especially when you come from a string of injuries in the past, and just getting the chance to show what you can do. Credit to coach David Manuel who backed me through the toughest times, when I thought I can’t do this anymore. When something like that happens it just reinstates that you know you can do, and I’m grateful for that.
“The injuries have been a low, low point of my career. I used to tell my close friends the worst thing ever is lying in bed and knowing you are better than the guys that are playing out there. To me getting over that mental barrier is something, I remember sitting in the doctors office and hoping my injury would go away after six months and it didn’t. Having to operate again and I said listen, perhaps I should take a year off from rugby and not do this this year. And then come back next year, and they said to me ‘Duncan, we believe in you and the guys at Loftus believe in you, so you go for the operation and you come back better’ and this is the result of that.
“If you come back from injury, the confidence needed to play at the highest level is a lot and I still believe I can be better than I am at the moment. It’s a matter of getting the fitness as well, so if you come back from an injury, you never get your optimal best. It is always stop-start. I’ve had a few games now to gain momentum and I know I can be better if I can get fully fit.”
Matthews is 88kg and 1.82m tall, a lot slighter than Savea when he made his debut. The All Black stands at 1.91m and 103kg but Matthews held his own, and even scored in the game, proving he could take the step up to the level. And while he isn’t the tallest or heaviest, he knows what counts on the field.
“When I came to the Bulls, I was much skinnier than I am now, and I worked on that and tried to get the physical attributes needed to play rugby. I might not have the height, but I think I can stand my ground when it comes to defending against guys like Julian Savea. The same goes for Warrick Gelant, the guys who are more attacking players than defensive players. If you can stand your ground I don’t think it matters how big you are or how tall you are.”
He does, however, admit that he was nervous against Savea, but that these nerves quickly settled with the help of his team-mates.
“I always tell (backline) coach David Manuel, that I feel it brings the best out of me if I get placed in situations where I can rise to the occasion. Like against Julian Savea, I stressed a lot, like any young player would against such a player, but I knew I needed to step up, he is a world class player and that’s what I did.
“The management backed me – they could have put Jesse Kriel on the wing against Julian Savea – but they asked me if I was ready, and I said yes and they backed me. I had a lot of help from guys like Warrick (Gelant) and Jan (Serfontein). I always knew Warrick was on my outside and Jan was on my inside. They spoke to me a lot in the game and reassured me they have the inside or outside.”
Matthews is brimming with confidence, and believes that while Saturday’s Super Rugby clash against the Stormers may be their last for the season, the Bulls backline doesn’t need to take a step back for their Cape opponents.
“I’m not too worried about the Stormers at the moment. I feel like Warrick and I and a few other guys in the team need to find each other better and things will come off. I’m not too worried about the Stormers, I know what we have in our backline and if we stick to what we do and do what we can do, the result will speak for itself.
“I think there was ever a time in the year where the Bulls stood a better chance. We have put a lot of new things in place and that will come through this weekend. We have an outstanding backline and if we find each other there are few sides that can beat us.”
Matthews is likely to get his answer on Saturday, although in his field of vision, there have been much tougher challenges to overcome thus far.