Maitland hoping to fell the french
The lad from a forestry town hoping to fell the French. Sean Maitland spoke exclusively to Scottish Rugby ahead of this weekend’s game with France. Read the feature interview with him before it's published in Sunday’s match programme.
Some 77 years ago, a man called David Henry founded New Zealand’s largest pulp and paper plant in the town of Tokorua in the Waikato region of the country.
Henry hailed from Juniper Green in Edinburgh and had emigrated to Antipodean climes at the turn of the century, initially working in a family timber company before eventually establishing Kinleith Mill, New Zealand’s most prominent location of its kind, in 1943.
The name Kinleith Mill was chosen as a nod to Henry’s place of birth, which is now situated less than two miles from Oriam, where Scotland prepared in earnest for this weekend’s Guinness Six Nations encounter with France.
Is it quit apt, then, that winger Sean Maitland should hail from Tokorua itself.
“No way!”, he reacts when the Kinleith Mill link is brought up. “My old man works there. It’s the heartbeat of Tokorua and without it, I think the place would be in real trouble. I’m buzzing about that link and so will he.”
The town, which he describes as being similar in size to Hawick, was where Maitland was brought up. He talks about the sense of community and that playing with a rugby ball as a kid “was the thing everybody did as there were three union and three league clubs in a town of about 15,000 people.”
His grandparents had emigrated from Glasgow in the 1960s, bringing their young families with them and happening to set up a new life in Tokorua.
“I think my grandfather had been in the Merchant Navy and he came over to New Zealand in search of opportunities for work. Tokorua has a strong forestry background and once he was settled, Nana followed with the kids I guess.”
Eligible to play for Scotland through both grandfathers, Maitland has become one of the elder statesmen of the international squad in light of some recent notable retirements.
He will win his 48th cap in Sunday’s fixture, some seven years since a debut at Twickenham that featured a try after only nine minutes. His role as an experienced head is one that has crept up, as he explained: “Time floes as people often say but it’s really so true. I can’t believe it’s been that long since my first cap and that I’m nearing 50.
“It’s astonishing – I looked at the squad recently and realised that only WP Nel is older than I am! Back when I was 23 or 24 I never would have imagined I’d still be a part of it all. It’s surreal actually.
“Part of my job now is to help the talented young guys coming through – the likes of Darcy [Graham] and Blair [Kinghorn], although they’re well established already so the future looks bright.
“I’m a guy who won’t speak very much in team meetings but behind the scenes or on the pitch, I try to lend a voice and help wherever I can. I also enjoy competing with these young lads and I’ve hopefully got a couple more years left in the tank as well!”
Maitland’s recent record against Sunday’s opponents is impressive; he crossed for tries in each of the past two matches at BT Murrayfield, in the 2018 Six Nations and again last year in a Rugby World Cup warm-up match.
This will be the former Glasgow Warriors’ seventh encounter with Les Bleus as the Scots chase a third straight victory over their Gallic rivals.
A new-look French squad makes the trip to Edinburgh boasting championship form, but the Scotland winger believes the home side have nothing to fear, adding: “No team really fancies coming to BT Murrayfield, where our record in the past few years is good, especially against France.
“We can take confidence from beating Italy last time around and keeping them scoreless – something I think has shown that we are a side who have improved a lot defensively. They were playing at home in perfect conditions and had put 20 points on France, so they definitely had the ability to really push us.
“France will pose their own problems and have won all of their games so far but we will be backing ourselves in front of our home support.
“There’s a great buzz around the squad at the moment and much of that is down to feeling that we have played reasonably well in the first three games of the championship, and we just want to continue improving.
“There’s loads of potential in the current squad and the guys coming through so it’s important to try and finish this campaign as well as we can to gain some momentum going forward.”
At 31, Sean Maitland shows no signs of slowing down and wants to represent his country for a while yet, form and fitness permitting. He will be doing it for himself, his young family and the Waikato natives that will be steeling themselves for an early alarm call on what will be Monday morning.
At 4am on the other side of the world, some 11,000 miles away, the local community of Tokorua will be tuning in to see how one of their sons fares against the form team of this year’s Guinness Six Nations; almost 80 years ago, a lad from Juniper Green had made the reverse journey with a different type of distinction.