Six Nations: New Scot Sean Maitland keen to make big impact

Sean Maitland playing for Canterbury Crusaders. Picture: Getty
Sean Maitland playing for Canterbury Crusaders. Picture: Getty
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IN A small room at the back of the stand at Scotstoun, Sean Maitland is slapping his tree-trunk thighs as he talks about the devastating consequences of an earthquake.

“Ever been through an earthquake?” he asks.

“No, Sean.”

“Well, you don’t wanna.” He’s talking about a horrendous day in his previous life as a Canterbury Crusader and an eye-witness to the tragedy that befell the city of Christchurch two years ago this month. At 12.51pm on Tuesday, 22 February, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake ripped through the place, killing 185 people. At the time it happened, Maitland was in his house with two of his team-mates, Zac Guildford and Peter Borlase. These guys knew all about earthquakes. Or thought they did. Having lived through a monster quake the previous September, they thought they would never again experience something like that. Only they did. What they got that February two years ago was stratospherically worse.

“The house we were staying in was basically an old place made of plaster,” says Maitland. “Then the earthquake hit and it just felt like the whole house was going to fall down on top of us. I was injured at the time. I had a problem with my foot, but when the earthquake came I just ran. You’re supposed to get under a table but, man, I just shot out the door and I was running like I never had an injury in my life. I was sprinting.

“My partner worked in the city in an eight-storey building so straight away I was worried about her. I just ran into town and it was frightening. I ran past one of the buildings that people died in and I saw bodies on the side of the street. There were people dead in their cars, buildings having fallen on them. I can’t explain it. Once you’ve been through an earthquake of that magnitude then you’ll be able to understand what I’m trying to say.”

In the weeks and months after the disaster there was nothing Maitland could do for Christchurch except for playing as hard as he could for the Crusaders. Amid the devastation, rugby had a power to elevate the spirit of those trying to deal with the destruction. Their home stadium was condemned, so they had to hit the road. They played their home games at Trafalgar Park in Nelson and the Alpine Energy Stadium in Timaru and even once at Twickenham, but we’ll come back to that.

The Crusaders were nomads, but they were successful nomads and, at the heart of the success and almost as key to it as Richie McCaw and Dan Carter and Sonny Bill Williams and Kieran Read and all the other storied names in their squad was Maitland, grandson of Stan the welder from Glasgow.

A week before the earthquake hit, in round one of the Super 14 championship, Maitland scored a try for the Crusaders when reading his team-mate Israel Dagg’s mind and reacting to his chip ahead faster than any defender. Maitland was one of the speediest players in Super Rugby. A flying machine.

Two weeks after the horrors that brought a city to its knees, the Crusaders played the Brumbies. Maitland scored four tries. A couple of weeks after that, there was the Twickenham game, a commercial venture against the Sharks of South Africa that drew a crowd of more than 35,000. Maitland scored another two tries. How bizarre that Maitland and Tim Visser, his likely wing partner next weekend, have both scored a pair of tries the last time – and the only time – they played at Twickenham. Visser’s brace came in the Barbarians’ win over England in 2011. At least two of the Scottish team will have good karma about their return on Saturday.

Maitland’s journey to this point has been dizzying. Consider what he has left behind. From Owen Franks at tighthead to Sam Whitelock in the second row and Read in the back row. From Dagg at full-back, Sonny Bill in the midfield and Carter at ten, the Crusaders team that played at Twickenham oozed class and experience, a bunch of men whose combined caps total for New Zealand currently stands at 380 – and that is not counting Richie McCaw, who was absent from the game in London in March 2011. We’d be adding another 116 to the bottom line if the great openside had been around.

Maitland was comfortable in this company. Given the ferocity of the competition on the wing, nobody was making bold predictions about him becoming an All Black but many thought he might. A fortnight after scoring a double at Twickenham he came up against the Chiefs and out-sprinted the seemingly out-sprintable Sitiveni Sivivatu to score another try. In the semi-final of the Super 14 he scored again, his ninth of the season. He finished the campaign as a losing finalist but as joint top-scorer in the entire competition. Maitland wasn’t quite hot enough to make the All Blacks’ World Cup squad later that autumn, but he was hot enough.

“It was a strange year, that. We didn’t have a home stadium because of the earthquake. We were on the road pretty much every game. The odds were always against us. The Twickenham game was really cool, because we won and because I got two tries. It was like touch rugby, that game. The tries I got, I didn’t have that much to do. They weren’t exactly lollipop tries, though. You know what a lollipop try is? If you catch it and just fall over the line that’s a lollipop try. They weren’t lollipops and I’d love a chance to play there again.

“Obviously, we’ve got England at Twickenham first up and to be involved in that would be incredible. I definitely know that it’s on the bucket list for the boys to get a win down there. I’m so blessed that I have this opportunity. I know I’m only in the door but I’m proud of my Scottish heritage. My granddad always reminded me that I was part Scottish and that I should never forget that.”

The 2011 season was a riot of optimism but what followed in 2012 was almost the opposite. He had an injury and he fell away. He came back into the side but he didn’t last. In the fast-changing world of Crusaders rugby the conveyor belt had carried in another tyro on the wing and Maitland faded away. It was brutal stuff.

“It was definitely a learning year, 2012. It was sort of a season where I got injuries and tried to come back too early and because of that I played bad and got dropped for some games. It was one of those years where I really learned about myself. I felt something needed to happen. My time was coming to an end with the Crusaders.

“You know, one year you can be doing really well and the next year everybody forgets about you. You can’t take it for granted. If there’s one thing they tell you at the Crusaders, it’s that time flies. When I look back, I’ve got to be happy with what I achieved. I played more than a half century of games for the Crusaders, won four titles in a row with Canterbury and won Super Rugby in my debut season in 2008. I made finals and semi-finals and was top tryscorer in 2011. So I look back and I have no regrets. When Sean Lineen came to talk to me [about moving to Scotland] I could relate to him because he’d done it before me. I was going stale at the Crusaders. Change is good.”

What does he miss about New Zealand? Not a lot. Having been a boarder from a young age, he has long since become used to being away from family. In any event he’s got loads of relatives in Scotland. His grandparents’ people are dotted everywhere. Glasgow Celtic folk to a man and woman. “They’re getting into the rugby now that I’m here, though. Nah, I’m not homesick. I don’t think I will be.”

Maitland is 24 and should be in his prime. The soft pitches he’s been playing on of late take some getting used to after the hard grounds of the Southern Hemisphere but he’ll adapt. The dynamic of a new dressing room is something else to contend with.

“That’s something I learned pretty quick. You’ve got to be able to take banter. There’s way more banter here than at the Crusasders. It’s good fun. They just go, ‘Hey, bro.’ They try and do a good Kiwi accent and it’s getting quite annoying actually. They don’t pull it off.”

And his Scottish accent? It’s not something he’s even attempting. Flower of Scotland is a different story, though. “We used to sing it at high school in Hamilton. We had a Scottish singing teacher. I probably need to learn it a bit more, though. I want to learn it because I think I’m going to have to sing it on the bus.”

He could be singing it for many years to come if he can rediscover the elan of 2011, the speed and the ruthlessness that marked him out as a special wing before he flew north for a new life.

Twitter: @TomEnglishSport