Sean Maitland: Scottish Rugby’s kilted Kiwi

Sean Maitland began an impressive first season for Scotland. Picture: PA
Sean Maitland began an impressive first season for Scotland. Picture: PA
Share this article
Have your say

Sean Maitland can run like the wind but today I reckon the wind would beat him. “You’re right, mate,” says the kilted Kiwi rugby flier as he slumps in his chair after a gale-battered training session.

Outside, the Scotstoun posts are shaking and it must be pretty hairy for the guys constructing the temporary stand for Glasgow Warriors’ final home game in the RaboDirect Pro12. Even at ground level the van in the car park advertising “Pasta & Pakora” is taking a buffeting.

An incongruous combo? Not in Glasgow, a city where they’re never shy about mixing it. And what is Maitland if not the surprise ingredient? At Twickenham in February, opening weekend of the Six Nations, he popped up on the right wing for Scotland having played just five games for Glasgow – all his previous rugby taking place 11,000 miles away. His debutant’s try was dedicated to his grandfather Stan, the Govan welder who gave Maitland the right to wear the dark blue. “I’m very proud to be half-Scottish; it means I’m not just your average Kiwi,” he adds, though, in truth, he’s more exotic than that, with his mother being half-Maori, half-Samoan. “Not many guys can say that. I’m your regular fruit salad.” Just as well Maitland is providing the healthy-option dessert; somehow I don’t think that van will sell it.

Our chat is taking place before last night’s game against Ospreys in Warriors’ bid for a semi-final play-off place and, understandably, given his late arrival last November, the 24-year-old Maitland wants his season to continue for as long as possible, both with the Warriors and, hopefully, the British and Irish Lions. He’s settled in well and loves Glasgow and its sporting passion, even if not all directed at his sport. “I’ve got a flat in the West End and my girlfriend Nava has just qualified as a primary teacher, so she’ll be trying to get a job here. The people are real friendly and it’s no problem for me to understand them. Right up until he passed away when I was 16, my grandfather spoke with a Glaswegian accent. He never lost it all his time in New Zealand.

“What do I like about Glasgow? Well, the shopping. Urban Outfitters is a cool store. I like the fact that most of my team-mates can’t wear the trendy gear because they’re just too big. Guys like Al Kellock, I mean. Yeah, he’s Mr North Face.” Meanwhile, they call him Skux. “A lot of new Zealand guys say that to each other. It means you’re not doing bad for yourself. My team-mates would like you to think I’ve self-proclaimed it but that’s not true.”

As you’ll have gathered, Maitland is having a bantersome good time with his new best rugby chums – “They’re awesome” – both at Glasgow and in the national team. He mentions Stuart Hogg and Tim Visser, his compadres in Scotland’s back-three, but insists: “I’m an easy-going guy, I get along with everyone.” Every utterance concludes with “mate” (Maitland might well inhabit a place called Mateland). With his Warriors mates he recently had a wee holiday in Lanzarote – “Can’t you tell, mate?” he says, flexing tanned bisceps – and, after our chat, he’s off to the flicks with them to see the new Tom Cruise film, Oblivion. What about initiation ceremonies? “Well, it’s not like you can skull 12 jugs into a coma any more, so first Test against England the guys made me stand up on the bus and sing Flower of Scotland. And I stuffed up the first word! ‘The’ instead of ‘Oh’. I got it locked up after that.”

Our latest kilted Kiwi – following the likes Glenn Metcalfe, the Leslie brothers John and Martin, and the modern-day original, Sean Lineen, who turned up in New Zealand to sell Scotland to him – grew up in Tokoroa, near Hamilton, and presumably like all Kiwi boys, dreamed of becoming an All Black. “Tokoroa is a small timber town on the North Island, maybe the same size as Hawick, and a great place to grow up. The most exciting thing that happens there is the A&P Show, the annual carnival. I know people say that, in New Zealand, it’s still the 1950s or something, and obviously my home town is only little, but I never got frustrated or bored.”

Little it may be but Tokoroa has been a good-going rugby factory like Hawick, producing the All Blacks Richard Kahui, Keven Mealamu and Isaac Ross. Maitland played from the age of five, coached by his father John, a turner/fitter. With he and his own father both getting solid trades behind them, John urged his laddie to do the same, in case the rugby didn’t work out. “Dad actually said he didn’t think I’d make it in the game, which just spurred me on. My heart was set. I grew up idolising Jonah Lomu, Christian Cullen and Frank Bunce. I knew Dad was proud when I did become a player, although he’s a man of little emotion. And when I got picked for Scotland, yeah, that was real special for him.”

Before then, Maitland represented New Zealand at Schools, Under-19 and Under-20 level. He became a try-machine for Canterbury’s Crusaders, socks round his ankles, leaving vapour trails. Then his progress stalled. “I got injured, came back too soon, didn’t play well. If you stuff up, someone’ll take your place. I decided it was time to draw a line in the sand as regards the All Blacks. Scotland had always been in the back of my mind, because of having dual nationality and a dad who was always reminding me I’m half-Scottish. In 2008, after the Junior World Cup in Cardiff, I came up to Glasgow to meet the Scottish half of the clan. That was emotional. Most of them are big Celtic fans and it was such a shame Dad wasn’t there with me but hopefully he’ll get over soon. Later, I had the chance to play for the All Blacks Sevens but knew that would ruin my eligibility for Scotland, so I didn’t. Then I spoke to people close to me about coming here for a fresh challenge and decided: ‘Yeah, I’m going to do it.’”

Although Scotland recognition had been the aim, he was amazed at how quickly it came round. Kilted Kiwis don’t cause quite as much debentured harrumphing as in the past, and, to be fair to Maitland, he’s upfront about having always wanted to be an All Black until realising it wasn’t going to happen. He doesn’t overdo his Scottishness, though, and I say this despite having been told of the existence of a Scotch pie-making machine, a kind of votive object for Grandad Stan, who had it shipped over to New Zealand to remind him of the hameland. Well, it’s kitsch, but not as kitsch as greeting every visitor Down Under with a blast of Andy Stewart’s “Come in, come in, it’s guid tae see you”, or ending each day with a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer and Brigadoon. “Mate,” he says, “I love Tunnock’s!”

Beyond what Glasgow might achieve this season is the Lions tour of Australia and Maitland’s got a chance of making the squad. “A slight chance,” he corrects. Didn’t head coach Warren Gatland go to his school, Hamilton High? “Ha ha, yes, but I don’t think that’s a clincher. It’s going to be a tough team to make. There are lots of class players around, and especially on the outside.” What of the opposition? Watch out for Quade Cooper, pictured left, at 10 would be his advice. The very unshy and non-retiring Wallabies fly-half is Maitland’s cousin, a Kiwi like him who chose to make a shorter and altogether more notorious journey to gain international recognition. “Quade and I grew up together and my dad coached him, too, but then at 16 he moved over to Oz. Lots of New Zealanders do that. He’s a Wallaby now, and a great one, but I’m sure that deep down somewhere he’s still a Kiwi.”

Cooper is a Twitter fiend who’s had run-ins with the police and he’s even dabbled in boxing. Maitland says: “I’m sure it’s scary up there, going one-to-one, but he showed a lot of courage in his fight and knocked the guy out.” During the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand, Cooper was boo-ed by the home crowd – not for the apparent act of desertion, according to our man, but for an accusation, later dropped, that he’d deliberately kneed All Blacks captain Richie McCaw in the face. “You can’t touch up the skipper,” confirms Maitland.

As kids, the cousins played together, competed at everything. “Quade’s a few months older and I remember him telling me we were going to carve up the school race for six-year-olds, run across the line together – only on the final bend he tricked me and raced for home, leaving me in tears. I could always smoke him in the sprints, but what an angry boy! Once he chased me round the school, threatening to smash a chair over my head.”

Still, they’re good buddies now. “He’s very supportive. When I told him I was moving to Scotland he said: ‘Go hard, cuz.’ It really is a bit of a fantasy that we might line up against each other this summer. I mean, I’d love it to happen, because playing for the Lions would be the ultimate. But, honestly, playing for Scotland has already made my year.”