'When Gregor spoke to me, I was angry... For me to be denied that opportunity hurts'
Sean Maitland has a smile on his face and a spring in his step as he trots down to breakfast in the Scotland team hotel. It is the morning after Italy were shellacked at Murrayfield, Maitland and his pals waltzing around in the warm Edinburgh sun, the rugby slick and the tries flowing. He is hungry for a crack at the French in Paris in five days’ time, the Six Nations finale rearranged after Covid-19 tore through the home camp.
This Test falls outside World Rugby’s designated international window, meaning English clubs have no obligation to release their Scottish contingent. For a while, there have been rumblings about what might happen, Chinese whispers that hint at a grave impasse. Little of that registers when you’re immersed in a championship, though, when you spend each week preparing for some of the most stratospherically intense rugby matches of your life.
As he heads for the scoff – who knows, perhaps waffles were on the menu – there is a tap on Maitland’s shoulder. It’s Gregor Townsend, the Scotland coach, and he wears a decidedly grim look.
“Gregor pulls me aside to say, ‘sorry mate, you’re not playing’,” the Saracens wing tells RugbyPass. “I’m just like… taken aback. I don’t know what to think. He told me that before the Italy game, no players were getting released to play France, after the game they managed to get it to three, and this morning they’ve got it to five, but I’m not playing. I’m not one of the five? Oh, right.”
This sorry mess was not of Scotland’s making. The game, initially scheduled for round three of the tournament, was postponed when coronavirus cases erupted among the French squad and management. It later emerged that, several weeks earlier, some of them had gone out for waffles in Rome, ahead of their match with Italy. Fabien Galthie, the coach, attended an academy match to see his boy play for Stade Francais’ espoirs before Scotland were due to visit. There followed rancour and rumour, allegation and aggravation, and much rapping of knuckles from the French government. The greatest sporting damage, though, was wreaked upon the Scots.
Premiership Rugby sought compensation for going an extra match-day without their internationals. After lengthy talks with Scottish Rugby and the Six Nations, a significant six-figure sum was put up, but the number of players released capped at five. Townsend had good options in his back-three, far more so than in other areas of his squad. Maitland was out.
The whole ordeal was fundamentally, inescapably wrong. Scotland, deprived of a key player through red tape. Maitland, blocked from playing for his country, not by injury or poor form or suspension, but bureaucracy. The Six Nations, proudly hailing itself as ‘rugby’s greatest championship’, compromised. Governing bodies out of pocket. A title-deciding match tainted.
The uproar has dimmed now, not simply with the passage of time, but in part too because of the seismic, hoodoo-blasting victory seized by the Scots that night. For Maitland, who watched the game at home in St Albans, the ache lingers.
“When Gregor spoke to me, I was angry – angry over the politics, the money, whatever was organised,” he says. “Two hours later, you’re on a plane back to London. That’s your campaign over. You’re not there to help the boys get the win.
“It was a bit of a shambles, to be honest. Look, I don’t know what the ins and outs were in terms of politics and money, but when you bring those two into international rugby, it is disappointing and I am pretty gutted. No one has really spoken to me, or the other guys who missed out, about the reasons. I still don’t know what was discussed, what sort of sums were put forward – it would be good to get an explanation from Premiership Rugby and a bit of clarity.
“Let’s be honest, I’m 32, and mentally and physically I still feel good and that I’m playing at a high level, but the opportunities to put on the jersey are getting less and less. For me to be denied that opportunity hurts.”
This was a campaign of soaring highs and desperate lows, from the howitzer at Twickenham to the bludgeoning visited by Ireland, the Italian skelping to the maddening endgame. In the lead-up to Paris, Stuart Hogg described how the words emanating from France riled him, talk of having a “trophy to collect” from captain Charles Ollivon, talk of the 21-point margin of victory that would seal the title. Even a mischievous salute to International Waffle Day from the FFR’s official Twitter count.
“Teams can’t really break us down anymore,” Maitland says. “Our defence has improved massively. That’s been down to Steve Tandy, and it’s shown in him getting the Lions job, which is brilliant. It shows the fight and the toughness with the Scotland boys.
“Everyone thought France were going to turn up, win the game, and try to put 21-plus points on us. I had a feeling that it was going to be a lot closer and the result speaks for itself. I was stoked for the boys.
“I know Hoggy came out and said he was a bit hacked off with the comments from the French. They were the ones who got Covid and got the game cancelled. If Italy did the same, would that have happened? If we had a Covid outbreak, would it have been the same result in terms of rearranging the game, or would we have forfeited? It comes down to politics, it comes down to money.”
Two days after the anarchy at the Stade, Maitland got 15 minutes off the bench as Saracens put Richmond to the sword, Championship rugby helping salve his wounds.
This season will be no procession for the fallen English juggernaut. Every side and every player in the division will be lusting to claim the scalp of the Wolfpack. Some already have, Ealing Trailfinders, their chief rivals for promotion, turning them over twice in a pre-season competition; Cornish Pirates, in their opening game of the league, whipping them around Mennaye Field, a scrummage anchored by world champion Springbok Vincent Koch ground to sawdust.
“With Premiership Rugby saying only one team is going up and then they’re going to ring-fence it, there’s a lot of pressure to get back up,” Maitland says. “It’s crazy because one week you’re at Twickenham winning the Calcutta Cup and the next, you’re playing against Cornish Pirates away. It probably can’t get any further from one extreme to the other.
“I think those warm-up games against Ealing and the Cornish Pirates game have been a massive wake-up call to the guys – you ain’t going to just turn up and roll teams over. It’s definitely a different type of rugby where set-piece is more important. Over the first couple of games our set-piece wasn’t where it should be, but it’s been a massive learning and a massive positive for us to say we’ve got to get our s**t in order because these teams are coming for us.
“But since I’ve been at Sarries, every team you play in the Prem targets you. It’s like their World Cup final, it’s something that we should be used to. We got taught a lesson against Cornish Pirates and we’re learning new things.”
The ship has been set back on course, since it was boarded, ransacked and run aground by the Pirates. Saracens have put big scores on Jersey, Richmond and Bedford. They go to Doncaster Knights, a place above them in second, this Sunday, then a mighty scrap with table-topping Ealing the following weekend.
Their England front-liners are back in the mix now, men who copped a pasting for the way their Six Nations campaign foundered. They were bladed for being too undercooked, too off the pace, too far below their top gears.
“I thought it was a bit of a low blow from the pundits,” Maitland says. “They decided to call out the Sarries boys, but the whole England team in general weren’t playing their best. I don’t think there’s any disadvantage to them playing in the Championship.
“Everyone bought into the fact that the guys who are staying, we need to do a job and get back into the Premiership. Against England, I played one of my best games for Scotland, so there are no excuses.”
The competition, though, may have put a dent in their Lions chances. One of three Scots to tour Australia under Warren Gatland in 2013, Maitland was a strong contender to go to his native New Zealand on the last great voyage, where only two made the initial cut. A place on this mid-pandemic jaunt to the world champions’ back yard is not beyond him, but he knows he is an outsider.
The desperate, gnawing hope in Scotland is that more of their men are chosen this time around, with Townsend and Tandy on the coaching staff, and such compelling form on the road.
“I was pretty close to going in 2017. This year, I’m happy with the way I’m playing. I know there are a few nervous boys at Saracens with the squad selection coming up, but I’m pretty relaxed.
“You will 100 per cent see more Scottish boys on this tour. We’ve been playing well, boys have put their hands up, and the last two tours, the guys in the mix haven’t had that coach there to back them. I’m guessing when they’re in selection meetings and they’re talking about two players in a 50-50 call, now some of those boys have got coaches to say, ‘hey, I’m with those boys 24/7 and I know what they can do’.” And it comes with results.”
In rugby terms, Maitland has entered late middle-age, but his attributes – intelligence, leadership, defence and ruthlessness – are still prized, his wits kept keen by grappling with three children under five. Despite the France fiasco, despite the inexorable onset of Father Time, he remains a pivotal cog in Scotland’s resurgence and Saracens’ bid for redemption.
'The guy came up behind him and just, bang, blind-side, lamped him. Everyone jammed in. I was thinking, what have I got myself into?'
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 17, 2021
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