Matt Banahan: Former England winger now developing Scotland’s attack

Banahan joins Scotland as attack coach in August 2023 – NHS Group/Ross Parker

Most rugby coaches have a special way of getting the best out of their players and Matt Banahan is no exception, with his team’s wits playing an unlikely role in his success as Scotland Women’s attacking coach.

The former England player’s social media page is filled with mobile phone footage of him jumping out to scare people. Banahan’s massive 6ft 7in frame appearing out of nowhere was enough to intimidate most and even members of the Scotland squad have fallen victim to his tricks.

“Humor is a part of the world that a lot of people miss,” Banahan tells Telegraph Sport. “It costs no money. I have done it for years with my family. If I can make someone smile, it makes me smile. I enjoy other people’s success and laughter more than my own. That’s just how I treat my boyfriend.”

Next week, Banahan will be hoping to catch England off guard. “It will be another good marker for us to show the world that Scotland are not just here to play,” he says ahead of the match against the Six Nations champions in Edinburgh on April 13. in the same circles as the best teams.”

On the evidence of Scotland opening both games, it is a realistic ambition. Bryan Easson’s side opened their campaign with a win in Cardiff – their first in the Welsh capital for 20 years – before pushing France all the way in a repeat battle in Edinburgh last weekend. Emeline Gros’ last-minute try denied the hosts a bonus point in their 15-5 win, but their strong defense and impressively streamlined attack made Scotland unrecognizable from the 55-0 thumping in Vannes against Les Bleues a year ago. He talks about the impact Banahan, who played 16 times for England from 2009 to 2011 and scored 100 tries for Bath, has had north of the border.

But Banahan spends most of our conversation playing down his influence, instead trying to draw attention to the embarrassment of riches at his disposal. He checks out speedster Fran McGhie and fullback Alex Stewart, before talking to No. 8 Evie Gallagher and representative Emma Orr, who showed themselves to be future stars of the game.

Emma Orr from Scotland in action with Jasmine Joyce from WalesEmma Orr from Scotland in action with Jasmine Joyce from Wales

Emma Orr is part of the next generation of Scottish players – Reuters/Andrew Boyers

“Even though it’s in a women’s environment, I’m coaching rugby players,” he says. “They’re still athletes, they’re professional athletes. I’m just trying to get the best out of them. It’s not about me. That’s why I told the girls never talk about me in an interview, never talk about anything I do. I’m quite happy to be in the background. It’s not my journey, I’m just there to see the players on their journey. That’s what a coach is.”

Banahan is part of a growing group of male names who have made their mark in the women’s game. Wayne Smith, who guided New Zealand to a thrilling World Cup victory in 2022, is the most high-profile example, but there are many more closer to home. Former Harlequins hooker Dave Ward is in his third season leading Bristol Bears women, while ex-England lock Mouritz Botha has overseen the Saracens women’s defense since the start of the season. Also, former Scotland scrum-half Chris Paterson is offering fortnightly kicking sessions to the current set of kickers in the national squad.

The women’s game was always on Banahan’s radar, though. Dear wife Becky [née Sacco] he came through England’s age grade ranks alongside Maggie Alphonsi, Rachael Burford and Danielle Waterman.

Matt Banahan of England in action during the second test between Argentina and England at Estadio Padre Ernesto Martearena on June 13, 2009 in Salta, ArgentinaMatt Banahan of England in action during the second test between Argentina and England at Estadio Padre Ernesto Martearena on June 13, 2009 in Salta, Argentina

Banahan won 16 caps for England between 2009 and 2011 – Getty Images/Warren Little

Banahan was coaching Gloucester’s academy when he hung up his boots in 2021 after a three-year spell at the Cherry and Whites and then “bounced around” looking for coaching opportunities. He ended up at Exeter Chiefs women, before the opportunity came with Scotland. It just felt right.

“Sometimes people think about money, ego, but that never entered my radar,” he says. “I wanted to go somewhere to work and enjoy it and transfer all the stuff I was taught during my career, and probably my personality was more suited in this area. I think that’s why I enjoy it so much. It suits me as much as them, I hope. Sometimes it takes people five or 10 years to find that kind of niche where they should be training but I was lucky enough to find it very quickly. There’s no reason why I couldn’t be there for another 20 years.”

Since the women’s game is on the rise, you’d be a fool to bet against it. The Red Roses attracted the biggest crowd at an England rugby match last weekend, and Scotland’s game against England next Saturday is already sold out.

“In the men’s game at the moment you could have a coaching contract and it could be ripped off if you’re not performing and it’s a very dog-eat-dog life,” says Banahan. “We are creating something that is growing. I seriously think three games were really good [last weekend] that will open people’s eyes and say, ‘This is not the same game that was played five years ago or 10 years ago’.”

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