New Zealand polish adding shine for Scotland

THEY MAKE an odd couple, Sean Maitland and Finn Russell. The winger is such an obvious New Zealander that he might have flown in from Canterbury two days rather than two years ago.

THEY MAKE an odd couple, Sean Maitland and Finn Russell. The winger is such an obvious New Zealander that he might have flown in from Canterbury two days rather than two years ago.

The young stand-off beside him does his best to play it straight but can’t quite help mugging it up for the assembled media. After all, this is the character that the cameras caught dancing on the BT Murrayfield pitch after the Argentina victory... quiet he may be, shy he isn’t.

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Both players look likely to start against New Zealand along with the other 13 who took to the field last weekend as head coach Vern Cotter rewards that performance against Argentina with an unchanged XV. Rumours suggest that Jim Hamilton’s place on the bench may go to Tim Swinson as the Scots opt for mobility over muscle.

Scotland have a tradition of fielding “kilted Kiwis”. Some are more successful than others but Sean Maitland scored a try in his first Test against England at Twickenham, which undoubtedly helped endear him to his adopted country. If his second season was a little less impressive, the winger is back to his best this time round, with a well-taken “lollipop” try against
Argentina after Greig Laidlaw did the hard work.

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With his Canterbury Crusaders background Maitland is the obvious person to assess Saturday’s opposition – he grew up with several of them and still counts a couple as good mates. He admits that he had a “feed” with Colin Slade and Ryan Crotty, two fellow Crusaders from the old days. Maitland was once touted as All Black material but now that he faces his fellow countrymen, does he have any regrets about making the move to his mother’s land?

“Definitely no regrets,” says Maitland. “I enjoyed my five years with the Crusaders. We won a championship and I played with some awesome players. But since my decision to come over here I’ve had no regrets at all. Playing for Scotland and representing my family over here and making the Lions... it’s been a whirlwind.

“For the first six months here it took me a while to get used to things. Overseas players told me it would take that long to get used to a new country and a new club. But it is all second nature now. I’ve bought a house in Glasgow and this is my second home now. It’s great.

“Test-match rugby is definitely a step up from Super Rugby and club rugby. I think my defence has been tested more over here. And the kick-chase game as well. But it has been great. The last couple of years have gone by so quickly. It has been enjoyable playing with these boys, playing great rugby with Glasgow and obviously playing for Scotland.”

While Maitland’s New Zealand heritage cannot be missed, less obvious perhaps is the Kiwi influence on Finn Russell. Only last year the stand-off spent three months in Canterbury, thanks to the John Macphail scholarship, which went a long way to boosting Russell from Ayr’s first team to Scotland’s.

He follows a long line of international players who have benefited from a bit of hot-housing in the cold winter of New Zealand’s South Island. Grant Gilchrist, Alex Allan, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Jonny Gray all spent valuable time getting used to the added intensity that makes New Zealand rugby the best in the world. Russell played at Lincoln University, alongside such Crusader greats as Robbie Fruean, Dominic Bird and Jordan Taufua. Little wonder he returned all the better for the experience.

“It was brilliant going out there and playing the style of rugby that they play,” says Russell. “That has helped it being in here because Vern [Cotter] likes to play that kind of expansive, open game of rugby. Those three months out there really brought me on and give me that extra bit of confidence that I needed last season going back to Glasgow.

“I had lots of confidence when I came back after playing there for three months. At first I couldn’t get into the Glasgow team and was playing for Ayr and did all I could do there until I got my break at the end of the year and had a chance to have a game. I guess I took it.”

Did he ever, and now Russell faces the prospect of facing the best flyhalf in world rugby. If the rumours are right then the young Scot with three caps to his name will go toe-to-toe with one Daniel William Carter, the world record points scorer in international rugby with 1,448 in all Tests, former IRB Player of the Year and boasting 101 appearances for the All Blacks. Thank goodness Russell is a phlegmatic character or he might be tempted not to turn up at all. “He has been the best ten in the world for I don’t know how long, ten years or something, so to get a run out against him, if I am lucky enough to get it, would be amazing for me,” says the young Scot. “I would love to have a go against the best ten in the world.”

Scotland may have awarded New Zealand too much respect in the past and the presence of Dan Carter in the All Black ranks won’t help the home team regain a proper perspective on their visitors. Perhaps it is best left to Carter’s former Crusader colleague to explain how to stop the man in his tracks? “Just shut down his space, don’t give them time on the ball,” says Maitland. “When he is playing he always looks like he has time on the ball, so the main message would be to shut his space down really quickly.

“He always has many options with what he can do off his left peg. He has a great fend and a good show-and-go as well. We all know what he can do with the ball, so we just have to shut his time and space down.”

That, though, is easier said than done. Let’s hope that Russell is still in the mood for dancing after his encounter with Carter this Saturday.

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