Interview: Sean Lineen revels in new role

THE life of a head coach can be lonely and pressurised so it is no great surprise to see Sean Lineen infinitely more relaxed and at ease than he has been in years.

He looks as if he’s had the weight of the world lifted from his shoulders after swapping his Glasgow Warriors tracksuit for a nine-to-five office job at Murrayfield.

The Kiwi insists that he enjoys “the best of both worlds” because he combines coaching Scotland’s under-20s during the Six Nations and the World Championships with his SRU role in player recruitment. He certainly looks like he is enjoying life and is free from that haunted/hunted look that Gregor Townsend briefly inherited when the start of Glasgow’s season did not go quite according to plan. If it’s all an act that he is putting on, then Lineen should be in line for an Oscar.

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He has been able to put behind him the thee-hour daily drag from Edinburgh to Scotstoun and back and now scours the globe for Scottish-qualified players (or “project players” like Willem Nel) from the warmth of a Murrayfield office. He has even picked up some of the slack left behind when high performance director Graham Lowe left the SRU. Lineen may even eventually take over that post.

It has all been a shock, not least to Lineen’s wife, who has seen more of her husband in the last seven months than she did in the previous seven years.

“I honestly didn’t realise how tired I had become,” confesses Lineen, “and people keep telling me that I look a lot younger since giving up the Glasgow job.

“I certainly don’t miss the three-hour commute each day on the M8. My wife has become sick of me already, although she enjoys being able to go on a family holiday. I’ve got a dog now that I have time to walk it and I get to see my two boys which is great.”

The man who was once touted as Scotland head coach-in-waiting keeps his hand in by heading up the age-grade management team that includes two of the brightest young coaching prospects in Scotland, John Dalziel and Simon Cross, both of whom Lineen goes out of his way to praise.

The age-grade side are traditionally losers in the same numbers game that afflicts the senior team, only to a much, much greater extent. Lineen is effectively picking from just two years-worth of players rather than the ten to 15-year span that the senior coaches have to play with. The last successful Scotland under-20 team was the one containing big Richie Gray in the second row which managed three wins back in 2009, so perhaps it’s a good omen that Gray’s brother Jonny is in this year’s squad. He is one of 11 players who turned out for the team last season and, moreover, he is one who will still be available next season.

Lineen says: “We are trying to bring players on early so that we don’t have to start from scratch every year. We have about one third of the squad who played last season and about the same percentage will be available to us again next season. That is the sort of continuity we are looking for. All three of our tighthead props are a year younger and will be back next season all the better for their experience in this year’s championship.

“I work closely with [under-16s coach] Gary Mercer and Eddie Pollock [U18s]. It’s important I have a good relationship with them because we want to work with as many of the same players as possible through the age groups rather than start with an entirely new squad at every level.”

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While there has been endless talk of academy structures, training and conditioning, Lineen has rolled his sleeves up and adopted a more hands-on approach to preparing his players for the huge physical challenges that lie ahead. His mantra is matches, matches and more matches.

The youngsters played Boroughmuir early in the season, they had a fixture against league leaders Ayr just last week (a narrow loss) and have two more games lined up between now and their opening international against England in Plymouth on Friday, 1 February. The first is against Edinburgh University and the second is against Scotland’s club international side, both of which should test the strength and depth of the young squad. At least the boys won’t be complete strangers when they take to the field against England.

Almost inevitably, given Lineen’s role as chief scout for Scottish Rugby, there are a good number of exiles involved, including former Scotland hooker John Allan’s nephew Tommy Allan from South Africa. JJ Kilmartin is a stocky winger from Bath who impressed against Ayr and there is the London Scottish breakaway Tommy Spinks. There is even an Aussie winger in Peter Stewart who, as his name suggests, is properly qualified to play for Scotland.

Murdo McLeod so impressed against France last year that Clermont Auvergne drafted the young scrum-half into their academy and he is back in the squad. Sam Hidalgo-Clyne is another talented No.9 who is worth watching. Indeed Lineen is so spoilt for choice at scrum-half that he can afford to overlook Scott Steele, a member of Leicester Tigers’ academy who has experience of the Aviva Premiership, albeit measured in minutes rather than matches.

These exiles join a homegrown contingent including Mark Bennett and Robbie Fergusson, who were once colleagues at Ayr, where the young prop D’arcy Rae is currently playing. Boroughmuir’s midfielder Keith Buchan is a man of many talents, with a golf handicap of four and sufficient football skills to sign for Hibs as a junior.

Lineen boosts and bolsters squad spirit with a variety of off-field activities that vary from coffee mornings (no, really) to video presentations of previous matches in front of the other players. The coach even does his best Simon Cowell impersonation by hosting “Rugby Idol”. A group putting on their own version of Twilight stole the plaudits last time out, although I won’t embarrass them by name.

It all sounds like fun but all these high jinks are no laughing matter. While in camp, the training is so intense that the youngsters need some distraction during their down time or they risk overdosing on rugby and being driven from the game. In one revealing phrase Lineen says: “They have to enjoy it, the boys have to have fun.”

Bearing in mind that the vast majority of the young players are strictly amateur, he makes a telling point: “The lads need to be able to switch on and switch off. For me it’s all about professionalising the squad because a lot of these boys come to us without proper conditioning. We give them nutritional advice and we prepare them for the Six Nations. At the end of the series I want to be able to say to the pro-team coaches that we have several players ready to play professional rugby. We want to make the boys into men.”

That process will be tested to the full at Plymouth on 1 February and in the weeks that follow.