GLASGOW’S new Lions winger Sean Maitland has urged his team-mates to use the Heineken Cup this season to move themselves into a new arena of greatness.
The former Crusaders player has been involved in a number of top-class matches in Super Rugby, both in the southern hemisphere and at Twickenham, with Scotland and, this summer, with the British and Irish Lions in Australia. He, therefore, has more experience than any of his Warriors team-mates of the big occasion and what it takes to compete.
He dismissed suggestions, inevitably, that there might be an element of fear heading to Toulon, the home of the reigning European Cup champions and regular big scorers at home, for Sunday’s opening match of this season’s campaign. Instead, he insisted that Glasgow’s unbeaten start to the RaboDirect PRO12 should provide a new foundation of confidence from which to attack the European tournament.
He said: “Statistics don’t lie. They [Toulon] are champions for a reason and they have not lost at home for a while, so we know we are going into the lion’s den, the cauldron, but there is a lot of self-belief in our team. We are five from five and feel we have the firepower to go down to Toulon and compete and compete well.
“Toulon have not had their best performances in the last few games and we have the team to win. In the last few years we have established ourselves in the Rabo and when you look at the Leinsters and the Munsters, you look at how to make the next step and become a great team.
“That is something that Edinburgh [by reaching the Heineken Cup quarter-final in 2004 and semi-final in 2012] have done but not Glasgow. That is a goal. We think we have a pretty good pool and we have to make the next step – if you want to become a great team you have to do well in the Heineken.
“I think there is a lot of pressure on us because people don’t really talk about the Rabo being the strongest competition. All you hear about is the English and the French. So we have to establish ourselves this year.”
Maitland is commonly a bundle of energy, a sprinter whose fast-twitch fibres appear strung not only in his legs, but across his entire body. There is a sense as he speaks that he simply cannot wait to get to the Stade Felix Mayol and face up to the Toulon side – whoever that may be.
It is not clear yet whether Stuart Hogg will be fit to resume after a recent wrist injury and if indeed, he is unavailable, Maitland may retain the No 15 jersey. Should his fellow Lion be declared fit and selected, Maitland would start on the wing where his opponent could be one of a number of players, from French talents Alex Palisson and Vincent Martin, to pint-sized Samoan David Smith, Wallaby Drew Mitchell to All Black Rudi Wulf, or even fleet-of-foot Fijian Josua Tuisova. Thankfully, perhaps, Springbok flyer Bryan Habana will not be involved after being injured in the pulsating Rugby Championship defeat to New Zealand at the weekend.
If full-back, there is a far shorter list, merely the likes of England’s temperamental talent Delon Armitage, Mitchell or Palisson to worry about. That does, however, illustrate the unparalleled quality and choice available to Bernard Laporte, the Toulon coach, repeated as it is across most positions in his ‘league of nations’ team. But Maitland, who has played in the Super 15 Final and rates his current squad highly, takes that in his stride.
“We have a lot of depth in our squad,” insisted Maitland. “There is nothing to fear about them. They have a lot of world-class players but the word I would use for us right now is excitement.
“Playing in front of big crowds in big games is what rugby players dream about. I heard the atmosphere will be one of the best and everyone is buzzing.
“It is confidence that you need for games like this. Last year we should have had two good wins over Castres [Glasgow lost by three points at home and just two away] and they ended up winning the Top 14. Maybe in the past we have not put in the 80-minute performances.
“This week, we will have to put in an 80-minute performance to crack them. Otherwise we won’t get a result.
“It is all about confidence. Five from five undefeated means there is a lot of confidence floating around the squad. No Scottish team has won any silverware in a while. We have the squad and the depth with the right support and facilities, and being five from five has got to help us.
“Can we beat Toulon? Yeah. If we put a good 80-minute performance together we have a chance.
“And if we did, mate, it would be a crazy feeling. I have been part of some special games but a win this week would definitely be up there, not only for the club but for the city.
“We have a goal in mind. We want rugby to grow. We don’t want to just hear about Celtic and Rangers; we want to hear about the Glasgow Warriors – that is our goal.”