100 Club: Nipper

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Last weekend in the return game against Scarlets the doors of the Cardiff Blues 100 Club were thrown open once again as Matthew Morgan reached the appearance milestone for the club.

It’s been four-and-a-half years since the 28-year-old arrived at the Arms Park in the summer of 2016 after playing in the English Championship with Bristol Bears for the two years previously, at a strange time in his career.

Up until the year previously his career had seemed to be on a largely upward trajectory, from leading Wales U20 to a third place finish at the 2012 World U20 Championship, to making the transition into the Ospreys first team, then becoming a key man in the Bristol side before getting the nod in Wales’ 2015 Rugby World Cup squad.

However Bristol’s failure to gain promotion to the Gallagher Premiership in 2014/15 meant it was a second year in the second tier of English rugby for Morgan, with his international selection disappearing and his career in danger of stalling.

The player who arrived at Cardiff Blues was a player who almost needed reconditioning to playing full-back at the top level, but in terms of how he was physically playing the game, and how he was mentally approaching it, but between now and then the journey has once again seen a strong upward trajectory.

While there are elements of Morgan’s game that have improved hugely since he arrived at Cardiff Blues, one constant has been his incredible counter attacking threat which puts him in, even with a conservative opinion, the top five elusive runners in Europe. With my blue tinted glasses on I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to put him right up there with Cheslin Kolbe.

The try against Bristol Bears in perhaps a forgotten one but the dummy, step and acceleration make a 50 metre try beating four players, however it’s the score against Saracens that stands out as one of the best individual scores that Cardiff Rugby has seen in 145 years of rugby history.

To take the kick on the back foot and have the awareness to step past a full tilt British and Irish Lion in Sean Maitland, beat another man and then come up against a three-man wall of Alex Goode, Richard Wigglesworth and a second British and Irish Lion in Owen Farrell, and decide to just go straight between the last two is a stunning display of pace, power, balance and sheer confidence that we might not see again.

To say ‘I was there’ when Morgan scored that away at the reigning English champions in the Heineken Cup is something I’ve no doubt that those of us at Allianz Park that day will be able to tell future generations as the try is repeated on television coverage for the next 20 years. Beyond that though, he has become an integral part of the attacking shape since Gareth Anscombe left the club.

While Morgan has played exclusively at full-back for Cardiff Blues, his background is of course as a fly-half, where he featured for Wales U20 and the Ospreys until his switch to 15 while at Bristol Bears, and that makes him key as a second playmaker in our attacking shape.

Throughout much of 2016/17 and 2017/18 it was Jarrod Evans and Gareth Anscombe who formed that 10/15 axis, but with international call-ups and then the departure of the latter, Morgan has stepped up to provide that additional playmaking whether that comes in the wider channel, as in the first and third clips, or stepping into the fly-half position as in the second clip.

In American Football terms he’s become a dual threat full-back, capable of making a line break himself and creating one for a team-mate, but it’s fair to say that throughout his first two-to-three years at the club it was his defensive and high ball work that were letting him down in his overall game.

Now I have no statistics or any real evidence to back this up, but I’d argue it’s probably fair to say that Matthew Morgan did not spend a huge amount of time fielding high balls or making many tackles while Bristol marched around the English Championship whalloping semi-professionals.

As a result when he arrived in the Guinness Pro14 against the regularly kicking Irish sides and more often than not on the back foot with Cardiff Blues, that area of his game was suddenly exposed. I haven’t felt the need to include any clips of perceived mistakes because it doesn’t add any value to the piece, but even Nipper would likely admit that there were some moments he’d rather forget in those first few seasons.

Since the start of the 2019/20 campaign though there has been a marked improvement in Morgan’s ability under the high ball. No longer do teams arrive at the Arms Park or welcome us to their homes with a noticeable strategy being to target the full-back aerially, as they now know that he is solid under the high ball, and if they get the kick even slightly wrong then they’ll be punished on the counter attack.

Morgan has also become a solid defensive option, a vast improvement from one stage where he was when he arrived at Cardiff Blues, making key try saving tackles at regular intervals over the last 18 months.

Now this change hasn’t just happened overnight, but the hard work that has gone in on the training ground has clearly paid off. It’s that commitment which makes Nipper a crowd favourite even beyond the x factor counter attacking moments as, even though an Arms Park crowd will always favour a free-flowing attacking back, we also love a hard worker.

A player who can acknowledge shortcomings in their game and works to improve will always succeed on the field and in the eyes of supporters over a naturally talented player who doesn’t strive to be the best they possibly can be.

Matthew Morgan certainly falls into the first category and it is for that reason that he’s a very welcome addition to the Cardiff Blues 100 Club.

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