Saturday 18 September 2021 7:15 am

Exclusive: How Premiership champions Harlequins are looking to build on their success with new head coach Tabai Matson

Tabai Matson has picked a job few would relish: taking over a Harlequins team flying high and with last season’s Premiership trophy in the cabinet.

The Fiji-born former All Black is the new head coach at the London club, who begin their defence against Newcastle Falcons on Sunday, and has the unenviable task of following their domestic title winning campaign.

“A lot of people say ‘you don’t want to take over a team like that’,” said Matson, who was previously in charge of New Zealand Under-20s.

“Well, firstly, I’m not here to take over a team. And secondly, my remit hasn’t changed. They want to have a strong pathway, they want to grow the transition from the academy and build a strong culture.

“They know that they’re going to progress and move forward. I can help with that.”

Harlequins finished the regular season in fourth position before overcoming table-toppers Bristol Bears in an extraordinary semi-final. Then, in the highest-scoring final in Premiership history, Quins toppled favourites Exeter 40-38 to secure their first title since 2012.

“I think we all enjoyed the style that won them the title,” Matson added. “One of the things that I’ve been really excited and I’ve enjoyed this pre-season is they’re [the players] really clear: they want to have success playing in their true DNA.

“Coming from the southern hemisphere, it’s exciting. It’s positive intent; it’s about shifting the ball and trying to score tries. We’ve got an amazing backfield. Positive intent is something that really pleases me as a coach.”

Matson has coaching experience in Super Rugby with the Crusaders, and was head coach at Bath under Todd Blackadder during the 2016-17 season.

He has also worked in Japan, led his native Fiji and was an assistant at New Zealand side Chiefs, where British and Irish Lions boss Warren Gatland is head coach, until last year.

Quins put him through no fewer than five interviews before naming him head coach in the summer.

“What I found really interesting was they were really clear on who they wanted as a person and where they had to go, what they had to do and how they had to get on the boat and pedal in the same direction,” Matson said.

“They didn’t want me to hop on the boat and change direction. I think that’s probably the first time I’ve been involved in the process where they’re really clear on where they’re going.”

Harlequins beat Exeter Chiefs in last season's record-breaking Premiership final
Harlequins beat Exeter Chiefs in last season’s record-breaking Premiership final (Getty Images for Harlequins)

Harlequins’ former coach, Paul Gustard, left mid-season and later joined Italian outfit Benetton. In his place, Billy Millard, the general manager of rugby, took over on an interim basis and led the Twickenham outfit to the Premiership title. Millard has been made performance director, overseeing the men’s, women’s and academy teams.

“I think the public wants to see positive intent,” said Matson. “High performance sport in the Premiership especially is really pragmatic.

“One of the things Quins did amazing last year was the lineout, it was solid as a rock. Scrumming at times won them the game and there’s still some really pragmatic parts of the game. The style of play is really about all of your intent in certain parts of the field.”

Harlequins scored the most points last season [786] and finished in the top three teams in the tries scored, metres gained and turnovers won stats.

They will hope to pick up where they left off this weekend at Newcastle Falcons, who boast ex-Quins duo Nathan Earle and Mike Brown.

“For me, it’s easy to buy into that, because I want to play positively,” Matson said. “You’ve got a group of players, their mindset is there. But the context of the competition has changed. It’s a very tough call.”