Let’s tackle the giant, stinking African elephant in the room first, the rather damning photographs of Sean Maitland and four Saracens team-mates apparently flouting social distancing restrictions that appeared in the Daily Mail on Thursday. The pictures show the five of them – Scotland wing Maitland, Billy Vunipola, Nick Isiekwe, Alex Goode and Josh Ibuanokpe – chatting and supping coffees within what looks like suspiciously less than two metres of one another.
Saracens have issued a blushing statement, saying that the players had “accepted they made an error in judgement and apologised for any upset they may have caused”. Maitland has said sorry privately and does so again when questioned on the gathering. With two young daughters at home, it is hard to see why he would take any risks. “We made a mistake, we were too close together,” he told RugbyPass. “I’ve apologised to the club and I apologise to the wider public too.”
Saracens need more controversy like Mike Tyson needs a stronger uppercut. In November, the English and European champions were docked 35 points and fined over £5million for breaching the Premiership salary cap. Two months later, the league confirmed their automatic relegation from the top flight. It was a story and a scandal that reverberated through the game like a tsunami, and that is way before we get to the fielding of an ineligible player that nearly cost them their place in the Champions Cup.
Maitland had been back from Scotland’s dismal World Cup campaign for less than a fortnight when the squad was summoned to a meeting with former CEO Ed Griffiths, who outlined the bleak path ahead. “There was a massive shock and obviously a bit of anger there as well, I can’t lie about that,” Maitland said. “The anger was probably just more, how did we get to this point? Obviously, you hear that other clubs might be doing it, but we won all these trophies in the past, and everyone is going to be second-guessing that now.”
It wasn’t as if Saracens were thunderously well-liked before all of this. Whether for their rampant success, big personalities, a chunk of towering England internationals or talk of their much-vaunted ‘Wolf Pack’ defence, they were about as popular across the continent as Margaret Thatcher is in Glasgow. When news of the punishment broke, there was a sense of smugness that the villains so many loved to hate would get their comeuppance. Fans lined up to swing a gleeful boot at the disgraced juggernaut.
Exeter Chiefs owner Tony Rowe and director of rugby Rob Baxter, who had seen their team beaten by Saracens in successive Premiership finals, were quite understandably among the longest and loudest voices in the press. “That’s normal, that’s part of the game we’re in,” accepted Maitland. “When you do win, if anything happens negatively, people are going to jump on that. We knew there was going to be a lot of talk in the media after this came out – clubs, players, ex-players, owners.
“But that was all outside noise. We spoke about that as a club, you’re going to expect that. For us, it’s staying tight, staying together and that’s what we did. I don’t feel that (Saracens’ success is tainted) at all. It’s all down to us as a squad and how hard we’ve worked for those trophies. People are going to look at that outside of our Saracens bubble and think these trophies and titled are tainted. But I don’t think that’s the case – it’s all down to hard work, us winning those trophies.”
Days after the docking of points was made public, Saracens faced a trip to Gloucester in the sizzling cauldron of Kingsholm, missing a heap of their World Cup galacticos. They ran out to boos and were jeered with cries of “same old Sarries, always cheating”. Some home fans brandished fake £50 notes. Still, they got the job done. It was, remembers Maitland, an exercise in ruthlessness and stubbornness and blocking out the tumult in a 21-12 win. “It’s one of the toughest away games in the Prem and the reaction we got was outstanding. It just shows how much character was in our team.
“A lot of young boys were playing because most of our internationals were still at the World Cup, but it’s sort of been the story of the season. We can’t control what’s happening, it’s been difficult, but the way I think the players have handled it, in the media, especially on the field, we’ve just gotten on with our work.
“Not only the salary cap stuff but you look at European season, going down to 13 men against Ospreys and winning, getting Will Skelton red-carded in the first half against Racing 92 and winning, it’s been a year of fighting through those tough moments on and off the pitch and that comes down to the way our leadership group have led us and the way internally we have handled things.
“It’s been about living up to our standards, not giving up, not throwing in the towel, because I’m sure if some other teams got the punishment we got, you’d probably see a different story. We keep fighting for each other, staying within our circle. I keep going back to it – our leaders have done an amazing job, obviously our coaches as well, for us to have this stuff-it mentality.”
This culture and these bonds invigorate Maitland, the New Zealand-born ex-Crusader who moved to Glasgow eight years ago where he qualified for Scotland through his grandparents. Amid Saracens’ strife, there has been much talk of a return north, perhaps to fill the full-back void left at Warriors by Stuart Hogg. If Glasgow fans were dying to see him back, it has been a forlorn hope. Maitland is staying put for two more years, one of the big hitters happy to stick with the club and tackle the Championship.
“I don’t know why all these rumours have been coming out,” he said. “I re-signed a while back, before the Six Nations. I did have a chat with (incoming Glasgow coach) Danny Wilson and he’s a great coach who I get along with well, but the only place I wanted to be was Saracens. I love it here. My family are really settled in North London, and it’s a great club. I’m lucky to be here.
“I love coming in every day to train with my mates. It’s a family club, they do look after you bloody well. People probably don’t understand that it’s not really to do with the results and the trophies, it’s the memories and enjoyment you have off the field which is a big thing for me. When I found out when we were getting relegated, it didn’t change my mindset at all.”
Everybody in England’s second tier is going to be thirsting for a shot at the stricken giants. There will be some decidedly unglamorous and seriously testing away days, where the prestige and quality of the Premiership falls off a cliff. But for an outside back who turns 32 in September, it will not be the relentlessly competitive weekly grind of the top division. Maitland is still a hugely important and highly experienced member of Gregor Townsend’s Scotland team.
He longs to keep it that way, to surpass the 50-cap benchmark of which he is currently two Tests shy, and hopes that while there will be an obvious drop in standard, a year in the Championship might actually help him stay at the top a while longer. “At first, I didn’t check with Gregor (about playing for Saracens in the Championship),” he said. “I spoke to him towards the end of the Six Nations saying how I wanted to keep playing for Scotland. He had no doubt that it should be fine, obviously form depending.
“I’d just like to keep playing at a high level, keep playing for Scotland. I know there are a few guys that have retired since the World Cup but for me personally, I feel fresh, I feel good, I’d just like to keep playing until someone says no, you’re not good enough. I played in New Zealand and you look at these All Blacks that had sabbatical years, it had a massive positive on their career, probably gave them an extra year or two of playing.
“I’m obviously not treating the Championship as a sabbatical, but at 32, I’m not going to be playing every week, so I can look after my body a bit more as well as spending time with family off the field. Hopefully, it’ll add a couple of years onto my career. At the moment, I’m feeling good and I just keep cracking on.”
In the four Six Nations matches that Scotland managed to fulfil this year, the improvements and tweaks in style were obvious. Townsend’s blueprint for “the fastest rugby in the world” has been shelved for now, or at least significantly altered. There is more pragmatism, a more ravenous, belligerent appetite to defend and blast people backwards.
Steve Tandy, the defence specialist, replaced the long-standing Matt Taylor and his impact has been profound. Scotland leaked tries like rotten guttering in 2019. Against Ireland, England, Italy and France they shipped 15. This year, against the same opposition, they lost only four. Their venomous defence is the best so far in the interrupted championship. For all of their attacking game-breakers, they look like a team that truly loves life without the ball.
“There was a massive improvement from the World Cup,” suggested Maitland. “The biggest improvement was in defence, and that’s no disrespect to Matt Taylor, who is a terrific coach and did great things with the team. But as a defence, we’re just a lot tougher, a lot harder to break down. You can have all the systems in the world but if you don’t want to work hard, you don’t want to get off the ground you don’t want to make tackles, it’s not going to happen.
“Players have to recognise the extenuating circumstances and get on with playing games to make sure the clubs exist and thrive”
– @rwiggy9 on the limbo @Saracens and @premrugby are in due to the coronavirus pandemic. @chrisjonespress takes notes ?https://t.co/KBYoejJpTB
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 1, 2020
“We changed our mindset a bit around how we want to defend. We got rid of all the systems clouding our judgement. I don’t want to talk about Saracens, but we have probably got one of the best defences in the world and it’s not over-complicated. It’s about getting your width, coming off the line hard and trying to tackle someone behind the gain line, make a dominant tackle. That’s what we bought into with Scotland.
“Sometimes on the wing you don’t make too many tackles but you can see guys working hard, getting off the ground. I’ve got a pretty important job of talking to people on my inside and setting width and trying to get them off the line and bang someone. Overall, I just thought we had a bit more balance to our game. At the World Cup, we overplayed at times. Now we have got balance in different parts of the field, whether it’s slow ball or fast ball, kicking on our terms, when to play and when not. The trends of the game are that the team that kicks more wins more matches.”
As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to visit financial chaos upon the game, many of Saracens’ elite have taken wage cuts or huge salary deferrals to keep the club afloat. What kind of team they will put out next season remains to be seen. There is speculation over who among the heavy artillery will stay and who will go. Jamie George, the great England and Lions hooker, has nailed his colours to the Sarries mast. His international colleagues Jack Singleton and Ben Earl are sticking around long-term but will be sent on loan to Gloucester and Bristol Bears.
“From what I hear, we’re still going to have a pretty good team,” Maitland said. “And not only that but this year we have only really played our strongest team in a couple of games. It’s been our young academy boys that have been scrapping – that’s great for the future.
“We want to try and win the Championship, and the ultimate goal would be to come back up and do something special the next year. With what we’ve been through, what everyone said about us, that’d be an amazing thing to try and win a trophy. It’ll be tough, but how cool would that be? That excites me.”
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