SCOTLAND’s interim head coach Scott Johnson dropped a big hint that he is considering handing a debut to New Zealander Sean Maitland in next week’s Calcutta Cup match.
But he dismissed suggestions that it would smack of “tokenism” and insisted that Maitland had not only proved himself worthy of a Scotland call-up with fine form for Glasgow in recent weeks but also impressed Johnson with his desire to be part of a Scottish success story.
The New Zealand under-20 cap joined Glasgow in October from the Crusaders, his route to an All Blacks cap having been blocked by a plethora of talented wingers and full-backs in the South Island. He turned to his Scottish roots, with both grandparents having left Govan for a new life in the South Island of New Zealand in the 1970s and made sure he grew up well aware of his family history.
If selected next week to face England at Twickenham, in the opening RBS Six Nations Championship match, the 24-year-old will inevitably draw comparisons with Brendan Laney, the South Islander who made his debut for Scotland just over a decade ago.
However, there are clear differences. Laney was parachuted into the side within days of arriving in Edinburgh, replacing other players already selected without having played for his new Scottish club, and while Maitland’s rise above other Scotland wing contenders has been swift he has made five starts for Glasgow, scoring one try, and proved himself to be a new threat on the Warriors wing.
Speaking at the RBS Six Nations launch in London yesterday, Johnson insisted that Maitland would be as proud as any player to wear the navy blue at Twickenham.
“When I spoke to his dad he was standing in his kilt in New Zealand,” said Johnson. “Everyone thinks it’s the grandfather rule that Sean comes under. Sean’s father is Scottish [he was born in New Zealand only a year or two after parents and brother emigrated] and he has great pride in being a Scotsman. Sean used to be woken up as a kid to watch Scotland in the Five Nations, as it was.
“This kid is of proud Scottish heritage. This is not tokenism and he would be offended if anyone questioned that and so would his dad and his grandparents as well. He is a real proud Scotsman and he is there for the right reasons and that is why we value him as a member of this team.”
He could line up in a promising back three with Tim Visser, the Dutchman who qualified for Scotland on residential grounds last summer, and Stuart Hogg at full-back.
Johnson returned to Scotland last night to an update on the fitness of his squad ahead of next week’s build-up. Back rows Ross Rennie and John Barclay are both out of contention for the Calcutta Cup match, as is scrum-half Chris Cusiter, while David Denton and Johnnie Beattie are both nursing knocks.
England coach Stuart Lancaster, whose career took off with an opening-day victory over Scotland a year ago, has a number of injury concerns with one of his most potent attacking forces, Samoan centre Manu Tuilagi, currently rated 70/30 to be fit, with a midfield re-shuffle likely if he fails to make it.
Both Lancaster and Johnson praised each other’s strengths at yesterday’s launch, but in typically humorous form, Johnson pretended to wipe tears from his eyes when asked if he felt England injury worries might affect their team.
“That’s a real sad story,” he said. “So that just leaves them with about another 40,000 players to choose from. That’s a sad story that.”
As for the story Scots are eager to witness, that of a revival in Six Nations fortunes after last year’s whitewash under Andy Robinson, Johnson said that the weight of history and a 30-year pursuit of victory at Twickenham would not be a debilitating influence.
“A lot of these players probably haven’t been there before,” he added.
“We have to create our own history and disregard what has occurred in the past.
“The unknown factor is a good thing for us. We are the poor little boys on the block and we are happy to go in as the poor little boys on the block, but rest assured, come game time we may not be a poor little boy.”