WHEN Sean Maitland made his debut for Scotland and was swiftly propelled into the British and Irish Lions squad, re-opening the debate over the flying-in of New Zealanders to Scotland, there was one individual embedded deep into Scottish culture who allowed himself a wry smile.
Renowned as the original kilted Kiwi, Sean Lineen grew up in Auckland and worked as a policeman while playing rugby in the hope of following his famous father Terry into an All Blacks jersey. Now he is entrusted with stepping up the development of Scottish rugby players so that they can compete at the top level of the game without the need for outside help, but at the same time professionalising the scouting network in order to mine the great gems with Scottish roots scattered across the globe, and particularly before anyone else does.
It could be viewed as a great paradoxical challenge, in which case there is probably no-one better equipped to see both sides of the picture. A member of Scotland’s last Grand-Slam-winning team, in 1990, Lineen met a Scots lass, married and recently toasted 25 years in Scotland, so, at 51, has almost spent as many years here as he did in the Land of the Long White Cloud. “I certainly feel Scottish,” he said. “My wife and boys are both passionate Scots, and I have been more passionate about Scottish teams and players for the past 25 years than anyone back down there. I’ll always be a New Zealand ‘incomer’ but my heart is in Scotland.”
Anyone who has spent more than ten minutes in Lineen’s company will have no problem attesting to that, and it is doubtful that anyone involved in the game in the past 30 years has done more to improve Scottish rugby. Lineen has been an event manager, magazine publisher and ambassador and organiser for countless sporting charities and events, but it is coaching that had dominated his world for the past decade.
First he steered Boroughmuir to championship success and then he moved to Glasgow and plotted a path through the annual loss of emerging talents, tightening budgets, countless training and playing venues and an intensifying Celtic and European environment to mould a squad capable of challenging the best in Ireland and Wales. All the while retaining unbounded enthusiasm and humour.
Just when the SRU agreed to his appeals for more investment in the pro squads, and he appeared on the verge of taking Glasgow to that final step, of a RaboDirect PRO12 final, he was cut from the Warriors’ apex by Graham Lowe, the former SRU Director of Performance Rugby, and the SRU’s new chief executive Mark Dodson.
The move was poorly managed, Gregor Townsend being shuffled out of the Scotland squad management to Glasgow and Lineen heading up Scottish age-grade rugby and recruitment, both of Scottish-qualified players and top-quality players. It was widely seen as a demotion, but a year on he shrugs it off. “The way it came out wasn’t great,” he said, “but we’ve all moved on. I’ve got a great challenge to get my teeth into and Gregor is doing a fantastic job.
“I’ve got a lot of time for Gregor and we need young coaches like him to come through and get their chance, and it’s been good to see him developing with Shade [Munro] and Matt [Taylor], using the signings last year to help them develop the attack, which we had to do to move on.
“I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t feel a touch of envy seeing what we built up being added to with the likes of Maitland, Stuart Hogg coming through, DTH [van der Merwe], and great young Scots, but life is full of challenges.
“I loved my time coaching, but nine years at one club is a long time. When you’re working hands-on as a head coach with a team you don’t actually realise how much of a bubble you’re in. It is very, very intense, and you, and your family, make a lot of sacrifices. You have to be very selfish and focused on the team and you need massive support from your family.
“I don’t miss the hours through the night analysing your team and opposition, getting your breakfast at the Harthill service station at 6am and travelling home in the middle of the night from places like Connacht or Newport, trying to catch up on sleep when the kids are wanting to play. I loved the job, but I’ve also enjoyed getting out of that bubble this season, going and watching club games, school and youth games, and being refreshed by the quality of players and coaches we have.
“I’m a fan of Scottish rugby, going back to the days I arrived here and was privileged to have been part of a successful era in our game, and I am passionate about trying to help more players get back to days like that.”
The SRU could be following a model popular in continental football, where Italy, Germany and France regularly send some of their most experienced and skilled coaches to lower levels to shape the most impressionable young sportsmen and women, though that may not be intentional.
But there is merit in it. Lineen will leave with the Scotland under-20s for the Junior World Championships in France next week, with the Scots facing Argentina, Wales and Samoa as they strive to avoid the 60-point humiliation by the Aussies last year, and he insists that that will not happen again.
“There is a history there which suggests that Scotland at under-20 level will struggle, but that is past,” he stated, with typical fervour.
“Just as we are doing with the pro teams, in creating an environment where there can be no excuses, we are developing a structure at youth level that is more professional and that will prepare players better, in terms of their skills, strength and conditioning, their mental agility and their mindset. Guess what? We have good players, some very good players, and good coaches working very hard at all levels in the game in Scotland, but sometimes we don’t believe that. Like New Zealanders, we tend to not want to stick our head above the parapet, in case we’re laughed down. That has to change.
“We need expectation to be there; genuine belief. Yes, you need a bit of luck, with injuries, the bounce of the ball and refereeing decisions, but when the physical, mental and belief come together in a professional environment, as we’ve seen with Edinburgh in the Heineken Cup semi-finals last year and Glasgow in the Rabo, suddenly our guys are saying ‘these teams are not any better than us’ and we see more wins.
“Of course, there is much more to improving the development pathways, but I watched our under-16s doing well at Wellington recently and the under-18s beat Wales and were competitive in Grenoble. I’ve had the under-20 boys at HM Condor, working with the Marines this week, Scott Johnson was in speaking to them about our ambition and we will be trying different things in this championship to find a way of playing that suits us and makes life uncomfortable for the teams we play, the way I remember JJ [John Jeffrey], Fin Calder and others doing when I played. That was a long time ago and the game has moved on massively, but our game is improving and it’s about time we started believing it again.”
The new set-up will not lack enthusiasm or belief with him in charge, but he knows more than anyone proof of improvement needs results. Woe betide any youngster who thinks differently.