Sam Matavesi on life as a top flight rugby player and Royal Navy star

Northampton hooker Sam Matavesi is the Royal Navy’s most high profile professional rugby player which is why he had to ask an Admiral for permission to face Leinster in the Investec Champions Cup semi-final at Croke Park.

Matavesi, Fiji’s Rugby World Cup No2, juggles the demands of his dual role with the help of both organisations and realised he faced a major dilemma when Northampton won through to that semi-final on May 4. It meant the game clashed with the Navy’s most important fixture of the season against the Army at Twickenham.

For Matavesi, who has the rank of Local Acting Leading Hand, it was the most significant fixture clash of his career and that is why he went straight to the top. The 32-year-old who was born in Truro, told RugbyPass: ”When we beat the Bulls in the Champions Cup to reach semi-final I messaged the Admiral having met him at various events and I said that you don’t get – in your rugby career – many chances to play in a semi-final against Leinster in Croke Park in front of 82,000 people. I said I completely understood that the Navy v Army game is massive for armed services sport and he said he would speak to who he needed to. The Admiral was incredible.

“ The boys lost 43-42 at Twickenham against the Army and the previous year we had beaten them for the first time in 13 years. It was really tough following the Navy v Army game on YouTube on the coach going to Croke Park and seeing the Navy lose in the final play was horrible. We had been outstanding in the match and I know how much work the boys put in and I didn’t text the coach for a couple of days because I felt I had let them down.

“The boys are incredibly tight and it’s great to be part of that culture. I am not in camp for the whole three and a half months because it has to fit into the Saints schedule and I have started working with the Navy and the Rugby Players Association going into schools and colleges to tell my story about how the Navy has worked for me and it is a great career choice.

“I am now part of the Navy’s Elite Player Programme and it has mainly been for Olympians but rugby is now part of this programme. As a result, instead of being based out of RNAS Culdrose I am now in the Royal Navy’s sports hub in Portsmouth. As part of my contract I have to play at least two cap games for the Navy each year and Northampton have been incredible and I want to continue playing rugby and also give back to the Navy. I do get stick about being a track suit warrior and not having been on a ship in my seven years in the Navy. I am very proud to be an active member and to be serving in the Navy. “

Thankfully for Matavesi, Northampton’s Premiership play off semi-final against reigning champions Saracens on Friday night at Franklin’s Gardens has not required the intervention of the Navy’s top brass and he can fully focus on helping the club stay on course to repeat their title triumph in 2014. Matavesi was playing rugby in Cornwall the last time the Saints lifted the cup at Twickenham having already decided that it was important for the future of his young family that he secured a job and that is where the Navy came into the equation.

Being based in Culdrose and playing for the Cornish Pirates was made possible by the Navy and having started in the back row for Fiji he agreed to switch to hooker in a move that would transform his career taking him to Toulouse and then onto Northampton. However, moving into the middle of the front row wasn’t an immediate success, but putting in the hard work saw him picked at hooker for Fiji – he made his test debut at No8 -and he took part in the momentous 21-14 victory over France in Paris in 2018. That brought him to the notice of Toulouse who gave him a first taste of top flight club rugby and prompted Northampton to bring him to Franklin’s Gardens.

Matavesi, whose rugby playing Fijian father relocated to Cornwall in the 1980’s, added: “In 2019 I played against the RAF at the Twickenham Stoop and drove back to Cornwall having been told by my agent that I was going to join Toulouse as cover at hooker. I got my stuff and turned round and went straight to Bristol airport and flew to Toulouse. It meant I swapped the Pirates changing room alongside guys I went to school with to being in a changing room with Cheslin Kolbe. Jerome Kaino and Antoine Dupont. At the Pirates we had to pay for our after match shirts and at Toulouse I was handed three bags of Nike kit and free after match stuff. “

Matavesi has been battling for the Northampton starting position with Curtis Langdon who is pushing for selection for England’s summer tests with Japan and New Zealand. Both players are technically sound but also offer real footballing ability with ball in hand in the loose. “Curtis has been outstanding this season and deserves every plaudit he has been given:” said Matavesi who brother Josh was a regular in the Fiji team while younger sibling Joel has also been at Saints. “I hope Curtis gets the call for the tour and the big difference at Saints this year has been the strength in depth at the club.

“We have been playing outstanding this season and we have that blend of experience with the likes of Courtney Lawes and young talent coming through with Fin Smith. Some of the legend in the squad are leaving at the end of the season including Alex and Ethan Waller and we would be doing them all an injustice if we didn’t put all of our effort into beating Saracens.

“This Saints group has a massive job to do against Saracens who have probably been the best club team for a long time. Our backs can create something out of nothing and we train under pressure and at pace all the time. Ten years ago I was playing National Two rugby and working on a site digging holes.”

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