Winging it - Ulster reject Tommy Seymour on being a Lion

If the jersey fits: Tommy Seymour, is relishing the chance to wear the famous red stripe.
 Main photograph: Gary Hutchison/SNS
If the jersey fits: Tommy Seymour, is relishing the chance to wear the famous red stripe. Main photograph: Gary Hutchison/SNS
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Iscrolled through some old newspaper cuttings online from 2011, the year that Tommy Seymour exited Ulster’s academy and joined Glasgow Warriors at the behest of Sean Lineen, a good piece of business by the Glasgow coach as it turned out.

The new signing merited approximately two paragraphs in The Scotsman that day, with Seymour quoted as saying that Glasgow was: “The right place to develop as a player and to strive towards representative honours.” Job done Tommy.

He chose not to but Seymour could have added that Glasgow was also a haven for a young professional unwanted by Ulster; a decision you fancy they weren’t boasting about last Wednesday when the Scottish winger celebrated his call up to the British and Irish Lions.

“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” said a shell-shocked Seymour. “I’m a bit speechless. It’s an amazing feeling and a really proud moment for me and my family. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing, and you’re trying to take it in and your phone’s going mental.”

He was enjoying a quiet catch-up lunch with Glasgow team mate Richie Vernon in one of Glasgow’s west end coffee shops when the news came through, Vernon’s phone the first to chirp the good news before Seymour’s followed suit. He must have been one of the few internationals who were not glued to the live stream of the team announcement.

“That wasn’t out of any disrespect, though that’s probably the wrong word, it was just having lunch with a friend and relaxing,” says Seymour. “Ali Price and Finn [Russell] were in the corner of the coffee shop and suddenly they started signalling to Richie and he kind of somewhat exploded at the table and my phone started going off in parallel and then Ryan Wilson walked in out of the blue and started going mental round the coffee shop and I was just sitting there feeling a bit half-nauseous, sick, sweating for whatever reason. Then Hoggy came and picked me up and I was whisked to Murrayfield.”

It’s been a magical ride for Glasgow’s free-scoring winger who has become one of the most consistent performers in the Pro12 despite that early knock-back. He recalled his obligation to Lineen in an interview some years back when Seymour candidly admitted that he hadn’t been very good when he joined the Warriors but that the then Glasgow coach kept picking him regardless and, with regular rugby, he could not help but improve. After his Wednesday selection, Seymour was spreading his gratitude far and wide.

“ Ulster reject? Is that what you were going to say? Yeah, I don’t think many people could have written this path for me,” said the winger, gifting the “reject” tag to a journalist too polite to use the word himself.

“I never expected it in a million years but I don’t think anyone that young moving clubs could have thought along those lines. The way my career’s progressed I could never have enough gratitude and thanks to pay to Glasgow and the SRU, for giving me an opportunity to carry on playing, and guys like Gregor [Townsend] and other coaches I’ve had for giving me opportunities and belief, because when having to leave a club at that age because you’re surplus to requirements you can have doubts in your head, and at that young age doubts are not great.

‘But now it’s amazing. I remember four years ago when Hoggy was first picked. We were all in the changing room watching it and I had yet to get my first cap, and I was hopeful that Sean Maitland would be picked, as he rightly was, so that there would be a wing spot for the [Scotland] tour, and there was and I ended up getting my first cap.”

Let’s hope Damien Hoyland and Rory Hughes read those lines. Seymour has had a few wobbles recently in defence but there is no one better in the air, especially if any allowance is made for size. Above all Seymour has the happy knack of being in the right place at the right time, a natural born poacher who runs great support lines on the inside shoulder and his party piece, the intercept try, will come in handy in New Zealand. When asked what he thought had contributed to his selection Seymour’s response was altogether more prosaic.

“I hope my rugby,” was his initial response but the winger is a garrulous individual and he went on to add heaps of garnish to his initial answer until he finished with, “and obviously it helps playing outside Stuart Hogg.” He might find himself playing outside Hogg for the Lions but when quizzed about the paucity of Scots in the touring squad Seymour sidesteps what is a sore point for many north of the Border.

“I knew that bomb would be coming at some time… I will never be in a position of selecting a squad… a lot of [Scottish] guys put their hands up… as did a lot of guys from other countries… it’s such a hot question for a player to answer.”

Seymour came to rugby later than most, as a teenager in Belfast, having been born in Nashville, Tennessee, and his early Lions’ memories were of 2009 when the burly Ulster flanker Stephen Ferris was included in the squad for South Africa which lost a nail biting series.

With the very concept of the Lions under increasing scrutiny as officials desperately try and find a decent length of down time for the professional players, Seymour makes it clear where he stands on the issue.

“It’s such an aura surrounding it that everyone in the rugby world wants to be part of it and try and support the team. It has a uniting factor, its a uniting team therefore it brings together uniting supporters. It’s just a phenomenal tradition and to be sitting here to say that I have been allowed to take part in that tradition is beyond belief.”

What is also beyond belief is the levels of expectation that will fly out with this squad to New Zealand. The All Blacks have topped World Rugby’s rankings since 2009, they are 6-1 on to win the series and, having watched the Kiwi franchises sweep the board in Super Rugby this season, those odds look generous.

There is a disconnect between the fervour of the supporters and the Lions’ performance because the team have won just 37 per cent of matches historically speaking or, to put it another way, the Lions win less often than Scotland. Throw in a predictable coach and that suicidal schedule and you have to conclude that the Lions will do well to win one Test. Seymour remains undaunted.

“Everyone watches them and the brand of rugby they play and it’s an exciting country to watch,” says the Scot. “So everyone who is involved at international [level] will say that you always want to play against the best, you always want to test yourself against guys of that calibre and it’s no different going into this.

“We have to be excited at the prospect of going over there, it’s something incredibly special.”