Sean Maitland: World Cup build-up brings out personal best in Scotland squad
The extended 44-man training squad has just finished the first week of the second block of camp as they continue to get closer to some meaningful games.
And on Friday they were on the back pitches at BT Murrayfield going through their paces and showing off the new kit to supporters young and old at an open training session.
Matches home and away against France and Georgia in August and early September are just around the corner.
And 30-year-old Saracens man Maitland knows things are about to get “real” in the battle for places on the plane – because everyone is busting a gut to make it.
He said: “We all know that Gregor wants to play a very fast, high-tempo game and we had fitness testing at the start of this week and everyone smashed their own times and got personal bests, so at the moment everyone’s in really great shape physically.
“In terms of the build-up to the last World Cup in 2015, the difference is now there’s a lot of high-speed running. The boys are looking really sharp. My first week in camp was in Portugal [week three of the summer programme] so I got straight into it and it was a bit of a tough week, so I realised I had to keep training on my two weeks off.
“I was just back in London and doing a bit of work with the Sarries boys and that helped me coming into this block of training. It was obviously a great end to the season for me with Saracens and it’s better obviously to win a couple of trophies [the English Premiership and the European Champions Cup] than lose out in finals.
“Then the wee break was good, I got back home to New Zealand, took the family back, my two girls, and it was good to get three weeks there.
“And then to come back and rejoin the Scotland boys has been really good.
“Preparing for internationals or a World Cup is different than working with Saracens because the Premiership is a long grind. We have a lot more days off and a lot more time to recover, I guess you don’t really need to be battering each other, but more in terms of what we’re doing now it’s important to get that base [level of fitness].
“Some of the guys have obviously been training a lot longer than myself [with Scotland], I’m two weeks in so I’ve got a bit of catching up to do but that will come over the next three or four weeks.”
As Maitland, who has 40 caps and 11 tries for his country, alluded to he had a great end to his 2018-19 season, picking up two bits of silverware with his club.
Can it be hard to pick yourself up after such highs and then a break to “go again”?
He explained: “It’s part and parcel of rugby, for me setting personal goals helps press those reset buttons and it’s a massive motivation to get on that plane to Japan so it’s pretty easy to reset.
“Especially in the back three there is a lot of competition so that keeps you alert. It is pretty competitive, it definitely helps you. These young boys coming through, it pushes you. Guys like me and Tommy [Seymour] are into our 30s now so…!
“It’s really up to the coach on how he wants to see his squad made up [on who he takes to Japan], 31 isn’t a lot of players and they talk about having guys who can cover multiple positions so it’ll all come down to these warm-up games coming up and how we all get on.
“A lot of people are all saying ‘you looking forward to Japan?’ and I’m saying ‘I’ve got to get on the plane first’. World Cups and all that, it goes for everyone in the back three – maybe not Hoggy but all the rest – that we have to make sure of our spots. It pushes you.
“For me I am just concentrating on one week at a time. Four warm-up games is a lot and I am not sure what games I will be playing.”
For the last few years the Maitland, Stuart Hogg and Seymour back three has been almost unbreakable for Scotland, but with up-and-comers like Darcy Graham, pictured, and Blair Kinghorn now in the mix things have got interesting.
And Maitland is a big fan of 22-year-old winger Graham.
“He is obviously very talented, he rises above his playing weight,” Maitland said of the diminutive Edinburgh Rugby man.
“I have had a few weeks with him since the end of the Six Nations and he is a guy who keeps his head down and works hard, that is what I love about him.
“He is a very talented, explosive player, one of those wingers who gets off his wing and looks for work. He gets in around nine and 10, it is good for the future of Scottish rugby.
“He has a hell of a step. The last couple of days if you have been marking him in training, you have to watch his step.
“Darcy is so talented, so fast. When you are that fast, especially laterally, it brings that natural power, it does not matter how much you weigh, 80kg or 100kg, it is physics and he is powerful on account of his speed.”
Another player Maitland rates highly is Saracens team-mate Duncan Taylor.
The utility back, 29, ruptured both his anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments last September.
He also missed out on the 2015 World Cup due to injury and has not played for his country since 2017, but he is back in the mix.
And Maitland has been very impressed by his pal’s mental strength.
“I can’t imagine what he’s had to go through over the last couple of years but being around him most of that time, he’s such a positive person, he never seems to get too down and it’s just great for him to be back,” Maitland stated.
“He’s looking really good, looking sharp, and getting him back is excellent because we all know how talented he is. Hopefully he can stay fit and get some game time in the warm-up matches.”