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Seymour’s Lions call a source of great pride at Down High

By Jonathan Bradley

From Tennessee to New Zealand, via Downpatrick and Glasgow — it’s fair to say that Tommy Seymour’s path to becoming a British and Irish Lion has been a road less travelled.

With Iain Henderson, Rory Best and Jared Payne having been the toast of the province since they were announced as part of Warren Gatland’s touring party on Wednesday, Seymour himself can be counted as an honorary Ulsterman in the panel having grown up in County Down before coming through the Ulster Academy.

While he is now plying his trade with the Warriors and representing Scotland internationally, it’s been an unusual journey and the 28-year-old remains the toast of Down High School.

Having attended the Downpatrick institution after his family moved first from the USA, and then Dubai, due to his father Ian’s work commitments, his athletic talent was quickly recognised after being introduced to rugby and, by his penultimate year, he was the starting full-back when the school enjoyed a long overdue Ravenhill success when lifting the Schools’ Trophy.

In the words of his one-time coach Gareth McKillen, who is now the school’s vice-principal, his considerable talent was easy to spot from an early stage.

“He was an exceptional athlete and it was fairly obvious that he was destined for great things,” McKillen recalled.

“He was very physically fit and powerful, and he was head and shoulders above most in his age group.

“He was an all-rounder too. I was just thinking the other day about taking him away on a ski trip when he was in junior school.

“We took him ice skating and he was a natural at that too. Most sports just seemed to come easy to him.”

Back then

 the school wasn’t exactly fashionable in rugby terms, but things are much changed since then, with McKillen giving Seymour a slice of the credit.

“The profile has really increased since Tommy,” he said.

“There’s a lot of players now like Aaron Cairns and John Donnan (both current members of the Ulster set-up) and Ashleigh Baxter (Ireland international) who have gone on to big things and Tommy would have been an idol for them.

“He started a process in terms of rugby in the school and that’s been brought on by our coaches now in Charlie Knox and John Gunson.

“We’re at the point now where we’re held in quite high regard and this is another boost if you like.

“The school has always been very proud of Tommy and this is an incredible achievement.

“I sent him a message on announcement day just passing on the best wishes of the school and inviting him back after the tour. He came back to say that he’d be looking forward to it and he really appreciated all the support he still gets from over here.”

Upon completing his A-levels, the Ulster Academy followed when his talents were spotted by current head coach Neil Doak to bring about a u-turn over a university place in Scotland, but he found his route to the senior side blocked by established talent ahead of him.

Having opted for a move to Glasgow, the city where his mother Sue was born, he found a home that brought an end to his somewhat nomadic days.

He quickly became a firm favourite for the Scotstoun outfit and, despite having represented Ireland up to under-19 level, was able to switch his allegiance to Scotland and make his Test bow against South Africa in 2013.

His first international scores came against Japan that November and, 12 months later, he was doing the same against Argentina, New Zealand and Tonga.

It is one of his Scotland jerseys from that series, alongside one from the under-19 World Cup, that proudly hang on the walls of his old school. 

While Ulster are hardly lacking for options in the back three these days, a few tries against his old employers in recent seasons have certainly added to the feeling that Seymour is the ‘one who got away’.

Henderson, who like Seymour will be a first time tourist this summer, is already looking forward to catching up in New Zealand with the man who, had things broken differently, would still be a team-mate.

“I played a few games for the Ravens (now Ulster A) with Tommy when I came out of school,” Henderson recalled.

“It’s a bit unfortunate he’s not playing at Ulster at the minute but he had a lot of class players ahead of him, ones that are still here.

“There’s no hard feelings or anything about him going to Scotland, look what he’s gone and done.

“He’s class for Glasgow and class for Scotland and he’s completely deserving. He maybe didn’t get the chances here, whether that was justified or not justified, but he’s went over there and taken a shot so fair play to him.

“He’s a great lad as well, Gilly (Craig Gilroy) probably knows him the best in the squad but there’s never a bad word against him.”

Current Glasgow team-mate Stuart Hogg — the only other Scot to be selected in the 41-man panel for the tour, much to the chagrin of those who packed Murrayfield during the Six Nations — believes Seymour is ready to take New Zealand by storm this summer.

“I’m chuffed for Tommy,” he said. “I think he’s been world-class in the last few years and fully deserves his place on the plane.

“He’s incredible in the air — great at the high ball both in attack and defence. I’ve got every confidence to stick up a high ball for him to chase and know that he’s going to get that ball back.

“I think that sets him apart from the other wingers. His finishing ability, he’s got the tries over the last few years, and fully deserves his call-up.

“Here’s hoping that we can play together.”

And while that would be a moment to appease some of the Scottish ire, it would be a sight no doubt just as well received in a small corner of County Down.

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