By Joe Harvey
Following months of waiting, Scott Mathie’s tenure as the Head Coach of the New England Free Jacks got underway last Saturday. Making the trip to Louisiana and the Gold Mine, the Free Jacks brought back a 13-24 win, Pieter Jansen, John Poland and Beaudein Waaka the try scorers.
Now the first game is out of the way, the wait for a second is a little longer than perhaps many will want. On a bye week, Mathie speaks after trawling the game footage once more, waiting nervously for his soccer team, Newcastle United, to get their Tuesday night game underway in England.
It is a somewhat familiar feeling for the South African, who speaks about his first games as the coach of New England, his career to date and how he’ll be spending his bye week.
“Before the game I was quite anxious,” Mathie said. “I know what we have got, the players we have got, but you don’t really know what the competition is bringing, you don’t know what you are going to face.
“You have got an understanding from the video, but that is different knowing week in, week out. I think a lot of it is that I wasn’t quite sure where the team fits into this whole model, what the competition is actually like, how it feels on matchday and what that is like.
“There are a lot of unknowns going into the first game, which for any coach breeds a lot of anxiety – when you can’t control things. We handled those things well. We controlled what we could and when it came to the final whistle I was really chuffed with the performance.
“There were a lot of things we could have fixed, and a lot of the stats reflected that. We fought really hard to stay in the game and found a way to win. We made something like 270 tackles, which is outrageous. We found a way. It speaks a lot to this team; what they are about and how much they care for each other.”
With the larger squad only having gathered at the start of January, Mathie’s work is still only in its early stages. Last week Josh Larsen mentioned how there had only been slight changes to how the team would be playing this season, their primary focus being on how they defend and use turnover ball.
“I wanted to make sure that we retain what we do well and what are the core beliefs of the organization,” Mathie said. “Before you make a decision to get involved with an organization, you need to be aligned on those.
“So, we were aligned on being humble, hardworking, hungry and willing to have a bit of fun. Those are the core values of the Free Jacks and align really well with myself. There was really good work done last year, and I had loads of conversations with the players on Zoom leading up to my arrival, where I got to know them pretty well and get a feel for them.
“The things that worked well last year, that were great, we have kept. We have just been able to add onto them. That is something we have looked at, building on the foundations that have been laid.”
THE ROAD TO NEW ENGLAND
Mathie’s professional playing career spanned from 2004 to 2013. A scrum-half, the 39-year-old packed a lot into a relatively short playing career, representing the Blue Bulls, Sharks, Leeds Carnegie, Sale Sharks and Eastern Province Kings.
His move to England for spells with Leeds and Sale came after several injuries at the Sharks, with Ruan Pienaar making the starting jersey his own at Kings Park Stadium, his spell at Headingley some of the most regular rugby that he played in his career.
Winning promotion to the Premiership at the end of his first season in Yorkshire, Mathie played two seasons in the English top-flight before leaving for Sale Sharks.
Interestingly, a number of his teammates in Leeds have also made their way into coaching, Lee Blackett the current Head Coach of Wasps, whilst Scott Barrow is an assistant coach at the club, whilst Jonathan Pendlebury is the Head Coach of England’s men’s U18 side, many of that playing group still on a WhatsApp group chat which gets plenty of use.
Upon the conclusion of his playing career, the 39-year-old got straight into coaching at Durban High School, whilst also coaching Durban Collegians Rugby Club and with the Sharks’ age grade teams.
After several years, Mathie got a call from Brent Ranse van Rensburg, offering him an assistant coaching role. At the end of the 2019 season in South Africa, the former South Africa U19 international was given the top job, which he carried out for two seasons before moving to the Free Jacks.
“I served my time in Kimberley and I had a really good time there,” Mathie said. “I have always considered myself as a little bit of a pioneer in a way. I like to forge new paths and I think that has really got to do with being able to grow and learn more.
“A big attraction was to deal, manage, coach and work with people from completely different backgrounds. I have never coached a Kiwi, an American, an Englishman or a Fijian. As a coach, I think you can stagnate just dealing with one nationality, because there are similar culture traits and ways of dealing with people in South Africa that won’t work elsewhere.
“If you want to go further in coaching or you want to have more of an impact on people’s lives, then you have got to be able to teach and help people from different cultured and you have got to learn that.”
Alongside his own personal ambitions of personal development, Mathie has bought into the wider project of growing rugby in North America.
Seeing the work that the Free Jacks are doing in the community, along with the work that MLR is doing to aid the USA Eagles, the South African believes that rugby can find a place alongside football, baseball, ice hockey and basketball.
“I wouldn’t have taken the job if I didn’t feel like there was an impact to be had,” Mathie said. “That (the growth of rugby in America) is very much aligned with my own heart and why I coach, impacting individuals; making them better rugby players and helping them see what rugby can do for them in terms of their character.
“I feel like it is such a great game and I think it can find a niche in American sport and American culture, because there is nothing like it. Rugby celebrates humility, comradery, it celebrates coming together and I feel like American sport might not always do that.
“Rugby has just got something different, and I think that can be really great for the grassroots, it caters to people of all shapes and sizes. I think that is pretty cool.”
Now with a week off, Mathie is trying to build on last Saturday’s performance. Following the weekend off the team will be preparing for a Friday night trip to Old Glory DC. Instead, this Saturday and Sunday will be spent with his wife, Leigh, and three-month-old son, Jackson.
Travelling to Maine for a couple of days off, a short break will not only be a distraction from rugby, but from the goings on at his favorite soccer team, Newcastle United. A fan of the team thanks to his father coming from the city, settling in South Africa after a holiday to visit cousins, where he subsequently met Mathie’s mother, Patricia.
On Tuesday, the day this interview was conducted, Newcastle had a game which could have had a large bearing on their future in the Premier League. It was a conversation for two reasons (a) both Mathie and the writer support the team and (b) each had differing opinions on what the future may hold for the club.
Despite new ownership and investment into the squad during January, Mathie is of the belief that the fight is fought, a drop down to the second division inevitable, the other opinion that there is fight in the old dog yet.
“It (being a Newcastle fan) has made me really pragmatic and realistic about things,” Mathie said. “If you are a Newcastle fan, you understand despair, you understand false hope.
“I am a massive Newcastle fan, but if you have gone through the last 10 years of pain, you stop thinking about trophies and all you want is a team that you can be proud of and get behind.”
Soccer has been a passion for the 39-year-old his entire life, his family having had The Pink delivered to their home in Durban from Newcastle. Whilst the news would be a week out of date, it created a strong link with the city, a link only enhanced by cousins sending VHS tapes recapping full seasons to the southern hemisphere.
Newcastle ended up winning their game 3-1, leaving the relegation zone thanks to their win. So, the future is bright for both the soccer team and the rugby team coached by their biggest South African fan.