In the next installement of our National League player blogs, Tonbridge Juddians scrum-half Matt Walsh takes through his ‘less than conventional path’ into professional rugby and the National Leagues. Photo Credit: (Andy Watts Media)

Matt’s final blog takes him to his National Two South days with Worthing Raiders, plus he reflects on a promotion winning season with Tonbridge Juddians….

You’ll recall that it was as a result of the personnel changes at Rotherham Titans that I decided to leave the Championship and kick-start my career in teaching a little earlier than planned. Throughout my career, I had always dabbled in coaching and discussed with the likes of Garmo at DMP and Chris Walls at Roth about a potential move into education. So I went for it!

In doing so, I moved back to Sussex where I started a year’s teacher training at Durrington High School.  So, what could be more natural than to join the strongest 1st XV in the county, just down the road – Worthing Raiders.

Playing in National Two South, Raiders had been ‘mid table regulars’ ever since they were relegated from National One in 2014. Having started my rugby across the county at Haywards Heath, Worthing RFC was always a staunch rival, so this move felt a bit different.

Matt in action for Worthing Raiders. Photo Credit: Jez King

I’d invited a good mate of mine, John Dawe, to come down and play and we joined up with Kemp Price who was also new to the club [after an impressive campaign with Hampshire] and moved in together. This made my crossing to the other side of the county feel that bit easier, particularly as Kemp and Dawsey established themselves immediately as 1st XV ‘must haves’.

What was also happening was that my relationship with captain and No.8, Liam Perkins, along with fly-half, Matt Mclean, developed quite rapidly. The combination worked so well that journalists suggested that it was up there with the best in the league. Perky and Matt made my life easy as it always felt like we were on the same page. Despite early misgivings, it was ‘happy times’ at Worthing and a chance to see what we could achieve together.

The philosophy at Raiders was to play an attacking, exciting brand of rugby, identify opportunities and play together with freedom and, ultimately, score four tries. We were extremely successful in delivering against that specific objective.

The only problem being that our defence suffered in a fairly predictable fashion which meant, on occasions, the opposition might score five! It wasn’t that uncommon to be part of an 80-minute festival of attacking rugby, with a collective score of 60+ points, only for us to lose by two.

Having completed my teacher training successfully, I landed my dream job at a nearby academy where I could utilise my experience, both in the classroom and on the playing field, and look to climb the NQT learning curve with real purpose.

Whilst attempting all this ‘climbing’, I played a second season for Raiders. Continuing to play with freedom, we were more successful that season as the flaws in our defensive systems were well recognised [particularly by the opposition], but we shored up the holes.

Following a fairly serious knock to Perky, I was made captain for the second half of that season which was a role I wasn’t overly familiar with, despite always being happy to contribute. For the first time at Raiders, I was outside of my comfort zone which, paradoxically, was a sensation that had been missing from my game. I relished the new challenge and I believe it brought out another 10 per cent in me and allowed me to shape our attacking style of play a bit more. It also required leadership by example and defence isn’t something I have ever shirked away from.

When I reflect on some of that season’s ‘complete performances’, the game that immediately comes to the fore is Dings Crusaders at home in December. It was my very first match as captain. It was also the coldest day I can ever remember playing rugby. Brass monkeys! 10-0, a low-scoring Christmas classic where we defended for our lives. We’d turned a corner!

Another complete performance was Taunton, last game of the season, at home. Perfect conditions for running rugby in front of a large crowd. We wanted to sign off on a high and land a place in the top half of the division. The end to end play was, at times, frenetic requiring a referee of Richard Haughton’s experience and ability to keep up with play (I’m guessing it helps being a former England 7s wing!) The crowd loved it, we loved it, Raiders winning 66-31. 97 points scored was the record ‘most points scored in a game’ in National Two that season.

During the close season, after much soul-searching, I decided I needed to test myself again at a higher level for a team playing in National One or with a real chance of getting there the following season. Tonbridge Juddians was the perfect fit.

I know that my departure from Worthing ruffled some feathers but, for those who knew me, they recognised that I still held ambition and a desire to play at a higher level. Those guys wished me well and I truly appreciate their support whether close friends, teammates, coaches or supporters.

One or two others made it a slightly less comfortable transition choosing to refer to clauses in the very contract that had been breached by the Club with impunity throughout the season. Relying on a players’ consideration and understanding was an expectation which, in truth, I didn’t find totally unreasonable. However, when some of that same understanding was sought from the Club, it was seemingly in very short supply; the clauses of the contract were now all that mattered. I’ve been very honest throughout my blog and I’ll be honest again when saying this was simply the most unnecessary and negative period of my rugby career.

I arrived at Tonbridge Juddians ready to join a new group, change to a new way of working and to fight for my place in an organisation that had one clear goal – promotion to National One.

Right from the first training session, the place had a great feel. A proper breath of fresh air. I started to learn new ways of thinking. I was no longer comfortable and I felt real desire again. There was a total professionalism about the place I hadn’t experienced since leaving full time rugby.

Whether it be something as simple as acquiring your stash from Janet’s Emporium or the quality of communication between coaches and players through to pre-match and post-match nutrition (including beers), everything was organised. Whether it be on the pitch or off, there was a clear goal and a preferred way to reach it.

Once I’d found my feet and got to know my way around, there was no dodging the fact that I had joined an already very successful club with an already established scrum-half; Charlie Edwards.

In previous seasons, we’d had some tough games against one another. Indeed, there were times just the season before that we had had a couple of scraps, so Charlie could have made things decidedly uncomfortable for me. He never did and that’s testament to him and the environment created at TJ’s. Don’t get me wrong, even though we shared the nine shirt through the season, we pushed each other to get that starting spot. The competition was intense but, once a decision was made by the coaches, we supported that decision and supported one another. You might even say we’re close friends!

After winning 21/25 games, of course I have some great memories and there were plenty of notable performances. A few that really stood out for me; Leicester Lions first game of the season – seeing all our hard work in the off-season really come together with a big win followed by an outstanding performance against Taunton at home. However, defence is something we really pride ourselves on, boasting the best defence in the league, there were some key performances where we really demonstrated this – Esher, Redruth and Bournemouth at home were the epitome.

However, the single most important win for me was Henley Hawks, away from home.  The 18-17 win kept us top of the league.  It’s on occasions such as the Henley game that the contribution of your supporters is really felt and is so valuable.

Throughout the season, their unwavering support had made some away fixtures feel like we were at home. Whilst we didn’t remain on top, that win made a real difference. Not just because of the four points gained, but because of the belief instilled when beating a quality side to whom we’d lost 27-15 at home earlier in the season.

Then, what feels like a short time ago, it was announced that Tonbridge Juddians had gained the promotion to National One it fought so hard for. Finishing second to Taunton (against whom the home and away fixtures generated a total of 18 tries and 124 points), we should have entered the play off against Fylde, runners-up in National Two North.  As the fixture could not be played, Tonbridge were granted promotion based on the higher points total (also, a greater number of wins and a superior points difference).

In an attempt to be balanced, it has to be said, when it came to our final league position, we did leave quite a few bonus points out there. Not something we’ll get away with next season. Talking of which, allow me to take the opportunity to offer congratulations to the club that won the league – Taunton Titans (incidentally, the town of my birth).  Already looking forward to meeting you next season!

So, that brings me to the beginning of my 12th senior pre-season with a much-welcomed challenge on the horizon, accompanied by the very unwelcome challenge in Covid-19.

However, the team is looking in good shape and the club, coaches and players are doing everything to be ready for our return to play, whenever that may come.

To conclude, I just want to say a massive thank you to everyone who has been keeping up with my journey, your words of support are really appreciated. Thanks again and keep safe!