OBETZ, OH – I first met Matt Hughston in October of 2014 in the Denver airport. He was with Charlotte teammate Chris Milledge, and we were all on our way to LAX to meet the rest of the team we’d be going on tour to Australia with. Over the next ten days this rising superstar would earn a lifetime of my respect through his leadership, work ethic, and passion. Since then I have watched Matt reach great new heights; earning the captaincy of the USA South Panthers, playing with top teams in elite 7s competitions like the Elite City 7s, Serevi Rugbytown 7s, Halloween 7s, and the Las Vegas Invitational. Last summer Matt led the Charlotte Rugby Club to their first ever South 7s championship and a trip to the USA Club Rugby national tournament. It seemed only appropriate when PRO Rugby was announced that he’d get his shot at the big show.
A product of Charlotte, North Carolina, Matt began his rugby career with a bang. In his first match ever at 17 years old, against a touring team from Canada nonetheless, he earned himself a red card when he clothes-lined the opposing winger ten minutes into the match. Growing up with a football mindset, Matt thought he had made a great play. “I got up off the ground and the first thing I saw was their entire pack running at me. I had no idea what was going on.” But in the blink of an eye, Matt’s teammates were there to have his back. “After it was explained to me what I’d done, seeing how my teammates stood up for me like that, I was hooked.” After one year of high school rugby, Matt’s coach PJ Anderson pushed him to the Charlotte men’s team where he played a summer of 7s before heading to college at East Carolina University.
Matt briefly considered walking on to the ECU football team, but was then selected to the 2009 USA U20 side to compete in the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy championship in Nairobi, Kenya. There he played alongside the likes of current capped Eagles Cam Dolan, Peter Tiberio, Tai Enosa, and Zack Test. It was after the JWRT that Matt knew he was going to commit the rest of his life to rugby. Over the next several years, he would take advantage of every high level playing opportunity he could. Matt eventually made his way onto the USA South Panthers, where he became a mainstay at center and subsequently serve as captain for nearly two years before getting the call up to PRO.
When Matt received his contract offer from PRO in February, he didn’t know if making the move to Ohio was realistic, but with the support of his then fiancé – now wife – Hannah, as well as his bosses at Bank of America he was able to make it happen. Commenting on his ability to fully commit to PRO Rugby, Matt said, “Hannah loves me and has always supported my rugby career. Without her backing me none of this would have been possible. I was also allowed to keep my job at BoA, which was a massive weight off my shoulders.”
With the homestead in Charlotte secure, it was time to get to work in Columbus, only with one major difference: the Ohio coaches asked Matt to make the switch from being a career center to open-side flanker. In support of that effort, Matt added 25 pounds of muscle to his 6’3″ frame during the preseason. Making that kind of change, at the highest level of domestic rugby in the US, took some getting used to. Matt said of the switch, “I honestly didn’t know if I was playing well or not. Being a center my whole life, I constantly felt like I wasn’t touching the ball enough. It was weird at first, but my coaches kept telling me I was playing well, so after the first few games I became more comfortable.”
If you hadn’t already known that Hughston was a back his entire career, you never would have been able to guess that he was playing a new position. Through the first six weeks of the season he was consistently rated as the best performing 7 in PRO Rugby. When asked how he was able to play a brand new position at such a high level with unparalleled success he said “I couldn’t have done it without the coaches and the veteran forwards playing around me, teaching me and critiquing me every single day. They helped me understand that with 14 other incredible players around me I didn’t have to try to do everything on my own.” He continued by saying “I realized when the right time was to turn up the work rate and which moments to compliment my teammates and let them do what they do best. With their help I became more and more confident every week, and that’s when I started to find the try line.”
Going into week 8, a home match against San Diego on June 12th, the Aviators lost a few key backs to Eagles camp, so the coaches moved Matt to outside center for the fixture. Little did anyone know, Matt Hughston’s season would end that day. Ten minutes into the match, on Ohio’s third phase of the possession, Matt took a pass from the fly-half, and realizing there were no numbers to the outside, decided to carry the ball back towards the support. He bounced off two tacklers, fended a third, and after finally being wrapped up by a fourth defender took the ball to ground. On the way to ground, the crown of a San Diego prop’s head connected with the right side of Matt’s jaw and broke it clean in two. “I got up off the ground and was spitting blood. At first it felt like I had knocked out a few teeth, until the trainer came over, took one look and told me I was done…I was gutted knowing it was a minimum six week injury and that my season was over.”
Hughston spent the next six weeks with his jaw wired shut, losing all the weight he had gained in the preseason. Watching his team win while he was on the sidelines was tough and he noted, “We were 3-3 while I was on the field, and 6-0 while I was off it, so everyone likes to give me a hard time for that. But seeing how the attack really came together in the second half of the season was a thing of beauty.” Anxious to find out when Matt can play again, I was upset to find out that he recently had a separate surgery to repair his broken left pinky finger that he had been dealing with since February. He’s ambitious that he’ll only be out for a few more weeks, saying that “My doc says five weeks in the cast, but I think I may bust it off a week early for Rugbytown 7s.”
What could have been this season for Matt Hughston is up to you to speculate. I for one can’t wait to see him back in a PRO Rugby jersey next year. This off-season Matt plans to play some 7s to finish the summer, compile film and potentially look to play abroad until year two of PRO Rugby. I couldn’t resist asking my friend if a move to sunny San Diego to play for the Breakers was a possibility to which he replied, “I loved my first season with Ohio. One of the greatest things about rugby is it takes you to so many new places, introducing you to new teammates and new experiences. Wherever you go you know the rugby community will take care of you. Being given this opportunity in PRO Rugby has given me the confidence that I can play at the highest level for the rest of my career, so I will be grateful wherever I play.”
Stay tuned rugby fans, Matt Hughston will be back.
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