British & Irish Lions
The 'Kilted Kiwi' becomes a Lion
May 2, 2013
Sean Maitland scores against England, on his Scotland debut © Getty Images
Over the past seven months, Sean Maitland's lightning feet have barely touched the ground - he has gone from playing Super Rugby to being picked for the British & Irish Lions.
Last term he found himself in the midst of a season blighted by injury and poor form running out for the Crusaders and no closer to achieving his dream of playing for the All Blacks. Come the end of the southern hemisphere campaign, Maitland decided to broaden his horizons and by the time October came around he had signed for the Glasgow Warriors, complete with Scottish passport courtesy of his grandparents.
Fast forward to February and Maitland was running out at Twickenham for his Scotland debut. A try followed within nine minutes and over the course of the championship he had done enough to persuade the Lions hierarchy he was worthy of a place in the squad alongside the two other Scots in the party - his Glasgow team-mate Stuart Hogg and lock Richie Gray.
Following Tuesday's squad announcement, by his own admission, the following 24 hours were "unreal". Add to this the rollercoaster he has been on over the last few months, and you could forgive him for seeming a dazed when I met him on Wednesday.
"I decided to leave New Zealand to chase some new ambitions and reinvigorate myself," Maitland told ESPN. "I always wanted to play Test footy - coming over here and making Scotland and playing in the Six Nations was a dream come true.
"Then some Lions chat started, it came into conversation.
"It got me thinking, it'd be cool to play for the Lions not knowing I'd have a chance as there are a lot of quality players out there. Towards the actual naming of the squad, my name was getting chucked around and the boys were asking me if I was confident. I wasn't really expecting anything but to be named was unreal.
"My phone was going crazy, from everyone, family, friends back home in New Zealand who stayed up and watched the announcement. It was the weirdest feeling ever. Watching it live wasn't the best thing to do as I went in the changing room with the Glasgow Warriors boys.
"Then it was a case of doing a Q&A with sponsors, media and I think I was on Sky Sports straight away. I didn't know what to say, it was unbelievable. Obviously I am lucky and honoured but the hard work begins now."
Maitland is yet to hear from Warren Gatland following the squad announcement but the management have touched base. But Gatland is fully aware of Maitland's talent and threat - when the Lions coach was in charge of Waikato, he saw Maitland leave the region and opt for a switch to Canterbury. But any annoyance at Maitland's defection is clearly water under the bridge.
And he is also familiar with the Australia coach Robbie Deans as he handed Maitland his Super Rugby debut in 2008 for the Crusaders. And come the summer there is also the chance of a family reunion with cousin Quade Cooper, who he faced once in Super Rugby, on the hard tracks of Australia - Maitland says Cooper's "had the wood over me in a few recent battles so hopefully we can get one over him".
Little did Maitland know that when he ran out in Australia against the Melbourne Rebels in May last year, the next time he will play in the country, if all goes well, will be in a red shirt, but not of the Crusaders - in his own words "it's crazy how everything turns out, how it works out".
But he is relishing the chance to prove to the doubters he is worthy of his place in the squad. He was cruelly referred to in Australia's Daily Telegraph as "a Kiwi discard" but after encountering Maitland, his quiet confidence and calm demeanour should see him make those flippant off-the-cuff comments appear mere mockery rather than informed summations of his rugby ability.
And now Gatland will look to use the 'kilted Kiwi's' experience of playing in Australia to the Lions' advantage. He has 24 Super Rugby tries to his name and knows the plains Down Under better than most.
"It's good, there's great weather there," Maitland explains. "It's real hot and sticky. You need a lot of mental toughness to play there. The big three Test matches and the other games running up to it will be real close, as the provinces raise their game. There will be hard tracks and hopefully some fast running rugby."
© PA Photos
While he will be no stranger to Gatland and the Australian crowd, he has also faced some of his soon-to-be team-mates while on New Zealand duty for their Under-20s. He marked Leigh Halfpenny in the Junior World Championships semi-final in 2008 - he remembers the incumbent Lions fullback "wearing head gear and goal kicking" - and also turned out against his new skipper Sam Warburton, who was running out at No.8 that day.
His rugby experience, for his tender years, is extensive and in his own unique fashion, he has managed to tick off various goals - such as playing Super Rugby, in the Six Nations and getting picked for the Lions - but the summer's tour will be at the pinnacle of his achievements.
"I remember the 2001 tour the one they nearly won. I remember Jason Robinson's try and the crowd, the sea of red. It was unbelievable - that made me think just how massive it was. And then 2005, I guess it wasn't the best as they got stripped by the ABs but it's awesome to be a part of this wonderful experience and hopefully I'll get a chance."
Having sat on his sofa in Tokoroa taking in the previous Lions trip to Australia, he could well get the chance to make some history of his own after a mad few months that have seen him propelled from admitting defeat in his dreams of running out for the All Blacks to potential Lions immortality.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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