WXV 2: “This exceptional group of players want to keep raising the bar,” says Matt Banahan ahead of Japan game

Gary Heatly

Matt Banahan may have only been an assistant coach with the Scotland squad since the summer, but he has made an instant impact and is enjoying life in the environment.

The 36-year-old former England cap has built on the great work Chris Laidlaw did with the team’s attack during the TikTok Women’s Six Nations.

The national team’s victory over USA on Friday in South Africa was Scotland’s fifth in a row and that is the first time that has happened since 2001.

Twenty-two years ago the team went on to win six Tests on the spin and the current crop know that if they can do that too by beating Japan in a few days time (Friday, 1pm UK time, live here) then they will be right in the mix for the WXV 2 title.

Heading into the last round of WXV 2 action in Cape Town, Italy are ahead of Scotland on points difference and the former play USA on Saturday (4pm UK time, live here).

Banahan is looking forward to the next few days and said:  “My love for coaching has been there since I was playing and I feel that I can bring my expertise most to the women’s game and the under-18s and 20s games because I want to make people understand the game, not tell them what to do.

“The players here have their own views and are willing to take on new views and coming from my background where I was lucky to play multiple positions – I played back-row and second-row early on and then covered 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15 – I feel I have a good understanding of the whole pitch.

“In attack I want everyone to understand their roles and what they can and can’t do, so it is brilliant coming into this environment because the girls want to learn and give them options which help them develop.

“There is a brilliant culture here.

“When I came in at the start of pre-season I had to adapt very quickly and find out the ways of this group and how they tick and how they work.

“This group is exceptional in the way that they work on and off the field. They all want to get better, they are not happy resting on their laurels, they want to improve and that is what is impressive.

“The players want this squad to keep moving forward and we as coaches want that too, so these are exciting times.

“If we can keep raising the bar here then the next generation of young Scottish female players will be dragged up with us and that is the exciting bit.

“The average age of the current squad is still very young and they have definitely got two World Cup cycles in them [for the 2025 and 2029 tournaments] if they stay fit and healthy while the next generation will want to come in and be a part of things and are aspiring to be like the current squad.

“That is hugely exciting and this team is still growing there is so much potential here. I have only been with the squad since the summer, but it has been a great experience.”

So, what is Banahan expecting of a Japan team who lost to Italy and then beat Samoa with a bonus point?

“We know Japan are going to be a strong team who will cause some problems, but from the Spain game when I came into the group we have been very good at focusing on ourselves and focusing on getting better and scoring tries,” he said ahead of the ninth in the world versus 11th clash.

“Japan will be tough at the breakdown, they get around the park well and they are very fit and organised, so we have to have good preparations this week and go into the game with a little bit of confidence.

“We want to put a performance down and the result will take care of itself. We definitely won’t be thinking about anything else [the Italy-USA match the next day and how many points the team will need] because when you start doing that you lose focus on the job in hand.

“In the games we have had so far we have had plenty of opportunities to score and we want to keep playing that way as it has been a big positive for us. Nothing has to change.

“I think the rise of the women’s game in general in recent years has been fantastic. The standard across the board has been on an upward  trajectory for a while now and the ability of the players is really impressive.

“As a coach I want to try and bring what I’ve learnt over the years in terms of understanding the game to things and the girls in this group love talking about the game and helping each other improve individually and collectively.”

On social media recently Banahan referred to fellow assistant coach Martin Haag as his “rugby dad”.

“Martin has been brilliant with me,” Banahan said of his fellow Englishman who is also an assistant coach alongside Tyrone Holmes with the trio supporting head coach Bryan Easson.

“He coached me at Bath and he is a good family friend of ours, so I have known him a long time. He didn’t know that I had gone for this job, I kept it under the radar because I wanted to get it on my own.

“But now working with him and another experienced coach like Bryan – who understand coaches and coaching inside out – can only help me [and another young coach like Tyrone] get better.”

After his first couple of weeks in camp back in Edinburgh, Easson refereed to Banahan as an “excitable little puppy”.

Banahan joked:  “I can take that, I’ve been called worse!

“I love coaching, the satisfaction of watching people achieve things that you have helped them with is quite hard to put into words and I am desperate to help people achieve their goals.

“If I can bring energy to things and that brings performance levels up in training and at matches then I am doing my job and attack-wise we want to be fun, we want to be exciting, we want to see opportunities and take them.”

Banahan reported that all 30 squad members are fit and available for selection this week meaning second-row Sarah Bonar and centre/winger Coreen Grant have recovered from injuries.

The matchday 23 to play Japan is due to be named on Wednesday.

Scotland versus Japan will be live here on Friday at 1pm UK time

Keep an eye out on GH Media’s channels for Scotland women’s coverage through to the end of WXV 2 in October…

Thanks to Rugby People for the main image of Matt Banahan with the Scotland squad while he is also pictured with Martin Hagg and during his playing days with England