Matt Banahan interview: The former England wing now developing Scotland’s attack

Matt Banahan: The former England wing now developing Scotland's attack
Banahan joined the Scotland fold as attack coach in August 2023 - SNS Group/Ross Parker

Most rugby coaches have a particular way of getting the best out of their players and Matt Banahan is no exception, with his humorous side playing an unlikely role in his success as Scotland women’s attack coach.

The former England winger’s social media page is littered with mobile phone footage of him jumping out to scare people. Banahan’s giant 6ft 7in frame appearing out of nowhere would be enough to spook most and even members of Scotland’s squad have fallen victim to his pranks.

“Humour is part of the world that a lot of people miss,” Banahan tells Telegraph Sport. “It doesn’t cost any money. I’ve done it for years with my family. If I can make somebody smile, it makes me smile. I get more enjoyment out of other people’s success and laughter than my own. That’s just how I get my buzz.”

Next week, Banahan will hope to catch England off guard. “It will be another good marker for us to show the world that Scotland isn’t just here to play,” he says ahead of the match against the defending Women’s Six Nations champions in Edinburgh on April 13. “We want to be spoken about in those same circles as those top teams.”

On the evidence of Scotland’s opening two games, it is a realistic ambition. Bryan Easson’s side opened their campaign with a win in Cardiff – their first in the Wales capital for 20 years – before pushing France all the way in an attritional battle in Edinburgh last weekend. Emeline Gros’s last-minute try denied the hosts a losing bonus point in their 15-5 defeat, but with their robust defence and notably streamlined attack, Scotland looked unrecognisable to the one that crumbled 55-0 in Vannes against Les Bleues a year ago. It speaks to the impact that Banahan, who played 16 times for England from 2009 to 2011 and scored 100 tries for Bath, has made north of the border.

Yet Banahan spends most of our conversation playing down his influence, instead wanting to spotlight the embarrassment of riches he has at his disposal. He namechecks speedster Fran McGhie and back-row Alex Stewart, before talking up No 8 Evie Gallagher and centre Emma Orr, who have singled themselves out as future stars of the game.

Scotland's Emma Orr in action with Wales' Jasmine Joyce
Emma Orr is part of the coming generation of Scotland players - Reuters/Andrew Boyers

“Even though it’s in the female environment, I’m coaching rugby players,” he says. “They’re still athletes, they are professional athletes. I’m just trying to get the best out of them. It’s not about me. That’s why I said to the girls never speak about me in an interview, never speak 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 collective of male names who have made their mark in the female game. Wayne Smith, who guided New Zealand to a thrilling World Cup triumph in 2022, is the most high-profile example, but there are many more closer to home. Dave Ward, the former Harlequins hooker, is in his third season heading up Bristol Bears’ women, while former England lock Mouritz Botha has been overseeing Saracens women’s defence since the start of the season. Chris Paterson, the former Scotland fly-half, has also been offering bi-weekly kicking sessions to the current crop of kickers in the national squad.

The women’s game has always been on Banahan’s radar, though. His wife Becky [née Sacco] came through the England 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, Argentina
Banahan won 16 caps for England between 2009 and 2011 - Getty Images/Warren Little

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

“Sometimes people think about money, ego, but that didn’t fall into my radar,” he says. “I wanted to go somewhere to work and enjoy it and transfer all the stuff I’ve been taught over my career, with my personality being probably best suited in this area. I think that’s why I enjoy it so much. It suits me as much as them, hopefully. Sometimes people take them five to 10 years to find that sort of remit where they should be coaching whereas I’ve been fortunate that I’ve found it very quickly. There’s no reason why I couldn’t be in this for another 20 years.”

Given the way the women’s game is growing, you would be a fool to bet against him. The Red Roses attracted the biggest crowd at an English rugby match last weekend, while 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 get ripped up if you’re not performing and it’s a very dog-eat-dog world,” says Banahan. “We’re creating something that is growing. I genuinely think there were three really good games [last weekend] that will actually open people’s eyes and go, ‘This isn’t the same game that was played five years ago or 10 years ago’.”