AS SCOTLAND got together last week to start their preparations for the World Cup, they didn’t sound, look or act like a team that had suffered a 5-0 knockout in the Six Nations just a few short months ago. Sean Lamont was talking about winning the cup although, in stark contrast to the optimistic veteran, the head coach Vern Cotter wouldn’t even confirm a quarter-final spot as a realistic and achievable goal for his merry men.
Still, there are several reasons for the Scots to look on the brighter side of life, none of them quite as compelling as a quick glance at the list of names who missed the Six Nations but are now available for this World Cup squad.
‘I am really excited about having an opportunity to go down and play in the English premiership’
The South African duo of Josh Strauss and WP Nel are only two of the most obvious candidates who will add some much-needed power to the Scottish pack. Grant Gilchrist famously broke his arm in the very same week that Cotter anointed the Edinburgh lock as Scotland skipper for last year’s autumn series and John Barclay is back in the squad after a long spell in the international wilderness, coming in from the cold like some John le Carré character. If these are the obvious absentees, Sean Maitland has been sidelined for so long that we, like Glasgow Warriors, were beginning to adapt to life without him.
It’s been a difficult time for the winger, who was injured when attempting to score the winning try in the final few minutes of the Champions Cup tie against Bath at the Rec back in January. Maitland was going for the corner and Jonathan Joseph looked ill-equipped to stop him when the England centre got an assist from Sam Burgess. The big man barrelled into his own team-mate and the extra momentum halted Maitland in his tracks. If the failure to score hurt the Kiwi it was nothing to the agony in his shoulder as he tore a muscle stretching for the line.
“It’s been a bit of a frustrating season to be honest,” says Maitland. “I hurt my shoulder against Bath, right before the Six Nations. I was told to re-hab it for six to eight weeks and I would be fine. I was a young, healthy guy and I should make the end of the Six Nations. It just didn’t get better.
“That play had a massive impact on my season. The boys went into that [Six Nations] competition and not being involved was a bit gutting. The shoulder just didn’t get better but I got it rescanned and was told that I needed surgery… four to six months [out].
“I am ahead of schedule. I can run. I can keep fit, which is good, but I’m not taking contact. It [his injured right arm] is not looking as big as my left arm but that will come with rehab. It’s a week-by-week basis. I don’t want to chuck dates out there because I don’t want to kid myself but some time in August they are saying. Maybe not the first [World Cup warm-up] game but I’m pretty sure I will get a couple of games under my belt and get some match fitness.”
Maitland has stayed in Scotland while the remainder of the squad have decamped to France for some high-altitude training. It must be something of a worry, although the Kiwi is no stranger to setbacks. If missing the Six Nations was difficult it must have been even harder work watching Glasgow lift the Guinness Pro12 title from the back of the stand, especially as DTH van der Merwe scored two crucial tries from the wing, one in the semi, the other in that Belfast final against Munster.
“We were never going to lose that game,” Maitland insists, “especially after last year when we lost the final to Leinster. As a squad we were confident and our depth is amazing. I think we used 52 players in the whole season. Watching from the stands, when we scored our first try I knew we weren’t going to lose. We were too fast. If we get a dry ball the Glasgow game plan is just… it works into our hands. We love to spread the ball and it’s any winger’s dream to play in the Glasgow game plan.”
And so it is, which makes his move to London Irish this summer all the more perplexing. It may be that the exile club, under new management and ownership, offered him sums of money that Glasgow simply couldn’t match thanks to the outlay required to secure the services of Fijian giant Taqele Naiyaravoro. Moving from Pro12 champions to Aviva also-rans may present its own problems. The attack-minded winger may not see so much of the ball as he is used to, not that Maitland sees it in those terms.
“I am really excited about having an opportunity to go down and play in the English premiership and London Irish have given me that opportunity,” he says. “I am really grateful. I went down and met Bob Casey who has taken over things down there. He showed me around the brand new facilities. They have a three-year plan for the club and new owners. I just wanted to be part of it and also the opportunity to play more full-back was a big enticement as well… but World Cup first.”
Maitland scored against England at Twickenham on his international debut and some argue that he saves his best for the big occasion. If he can underwhelm on a wet night against ordinary opposition he comes alive on the big occasion and they don’t come any bigger than the World Cup.
He has a handy scoring record of seven tries in 18 league starts for Glasgow and three in his 15-cap Scotland career to date but it is his intelligent decision-making as much as anything that makes him so valuable. Furthermore, his understanding with his former Glasgow colleagues Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour could prove vital. As he puts it, “everyone knows each other’s ins and outs”.
Like everyone else in the game, Maitland was shocked and saddened by the sudden death of All Blacks’ legendary hit man Jerry Collins in a car crash in the south of France, a player he remembers with respect from his days in Super Rugby.
“I was lucky enough to have the honour of playing him a couple of times and I tell you what, he was a scary fellow!
“I remember, it might have been 2008, my first year with the Crusaders, one of my good friends Nasi Manu, he has actually signed for Edinburgh. We were both 18 at the time. He came on and Jerry just crucified him, knocked him out.
“It’s a shame what’s happened.”
It was a tragedy that brought the rugby world together, if only for a moment, but the cycle of life continues to spin. Maitland himself got married to his long-term partner Nava in Bali earlier this month and he proudly flashes his wedding ring.
“I got that out of the way, now I can focus on the World Cup.”