IT was the most unexpected appearance at No 10 since that night Noel Gallagher turned up at one of Tony Blair’s Downing Street drinks parties. Aside from ten or 15 minutes at Clermont Auverne earlier in the season, Greig Laidlaw hadn’t played fly half for years, the scrum half’s last start for his country in this role coming against Tonga in 2012, the last match of Andy Robinson’s reign as Scotland head coach.
So let’s just say he was rather surprised when Gregor Townsend casually mentioned to him yesterday morning that he should get him ready for just such an eventuality in the latter stages of the Six Nations meeting with France. If he was even more astonished when, having just kicked Scotland level for the first time since the third minute at 26-26, he saw Ali Price entering the fray for Finn Russell, he took it all in his stride. In addition to a perfect goal-kicking day which harvested 22 points, the 32-year-old’s game management skills were much to the fore as Scotland finished stronger than the leg weary French to close out a vital 32-26 victory.
“Gregor gave me the head’s up this morning,” said Laidlaw. “It was a bit of surprise, I was wondering if there were injuries. But it was easy enough to slip back in, the forwards were starting to carry well by that point and once you are on the front foot as a nine or a ten it becomes that much easier. I didn’t have to do too much, just distribute and that is credit to the pack. I think Dents [David Denton] coming on off the bench, he carried very well and I don’t think the French were enjoying that, having to go backwards.
“I certainly don’t expect to start there any time soon,” he added. “But once we start breaking games up I feel it is a strength of mine to read defences and keep teams in a game, and when I’m playing with someone like Ali who has good energy and good zip to his pass, I think we can help the team.”
This was Laidlaw’s first Scotland start since the meeting with France last year, having missed time with an ankle injury, the Lions tour and then a broken fibula. The intervening period has seen him lose the captaincy to John Barclay, but Laidlaw said whether or not he wears the captain’s armband is irrelevant.
“It has felt like a while to be honest,” he said. “I’m not a great watcher so it’s brilliant to be back out there in front of our own people at Murrayfield. No matter whether I am named captain or not captain, I am a leader as a half back and as a nine. I certainly know I have benefited in the past when I was captain from having strong leaders around me. It is invaluable to have that so I will be there to sit in beside Barcs, help him, and push the standards.”
Laidlaw had words of support for his usual half back partner Finn Russell [“He missed touch a couple of times,” said Laidlaw, “but he is a classy operator, he just needs time in the saddle.”] and said Scotland had learned their lessons from the opening day rout in Wales. Having said that, further improvements were needed against England and coach Eddie Jones, who has been rather disparaging about Scotland recently.
“We found that balance today, early in the game when it was sticky we were saying ‘don’t panic, stay in the game, get the ball down the field and force France to do something special from 75 metres’. That was the learning curve from last week and we were delighted.”
“Eddie has a lot to say – he likes to go out and speak but the last time I checked, Eddie wasn’t playing for England. As a Scotsman there is no better game to play in, we will be out there in front of our own people, we are starting to put a run together here, but we need to improve. It will be an extremely tough match, but the game is nil-nil at the minute.
“We do feel we can beat anyone here. That’s shown in our results. We were only beaten in the last calendary year by New Zealand and that was a five-point margin. I think we’ll have to play better than we did today to beat England, they are a great team, they’ve shown what a great defence they have as well. Again, we might have to look at some kicking options and play smartly when that one rolls around. For the minute, we’ll analyse ourselves in depth and come back better in a couple of weeks.”