IF Greig Laidlaw was the type of character to give two hoots about other people’s opinions of his rugby ability then he might have been tempted this week to respond to those who previously dismissed him as too pedestrian to fit into Scotland’s all-action game-plan.
A lot of the same people are now getting just as hysterical about the folly of sending Finn Russell out to play at stand-off against Wales last Saturday without the steadying influence of Laidlaw at his side.
The 32-year-old Borderer’s response to this mass swing of public opinion in his favour seems to be bemusement rather than any self-righteous sense of vindication – partly because he has always been the type of character who prefers to do his talking on the park – but mainly because the whole argument about Ali Price playing at nine if Scotland want to be high tempo and Laidlaw playing there if they want to slow things down is kind of missing the point.
It isn’t a one-or-the-other type equation. Price might be quicker across the ground and have a brisker service, but Laidlaw’s ability to read the game, get to the breakdown almost before it has happened and make sharp decisions means that the Scots are hardly sloth-like when he is on the park … unless he wants them to be.
Crucially, Laidlaw’s understanding of how to build momentum for his team by bringing runners into the game up the middle of the park could be crucial if Scotland are really going to France on the back foot on Sunday.
“In international rugby, you have to understand the ebbs and the flows of the game – the times you are going you have to keep going, keep going, keep hammering them,” said the scrum-half after being restored to the Scotland starting line-up on Thursday.
“But there will be a time in the game on Sunday when we will be under the pump, that is for sure. We are playing against a good side here and we will have to grab the game and slow it down, maybe just for a couple of minutes, to get a handle. Or put together a couple of direct plays to settle the nerves, give everybody a touch of the ball. We have a good plan and if we can execute it I think we can win.”
“We don’t want it to be frantic. We want to play disciplined rugby that is also quick rugby. At times we got away from that last weekend, there is no denying that.”
“That is when we need to be careful. When we start doing that we start coughing up ball. Credit to them [Wales], they lived off our mistakes last weekend because we were trying to play fast all the time and maybe we were not set.”
“That is when we maybe need to be a bit more pragmatic. Play that Test rugby mentality to get the ball down the field and just back our defence.”
Up until Saturday, almost everything Price had touched during his fledgling international career had turned to gold, so the Wales game must have pretty tough to take – but Laidlaw backs his younger rival to bounce back.
“Ali didn’t play too badly, just a couple of things didn’t go his way,” he insisted, “If we had been set quicker it might have been easier for him. He is going to be hurting – that is human nature – but he will pick himself back up and he has trained well this week. He says he just wants to get out there again and play again in this championship.”
As nice as it is to hear these words of solidarity between two competitors for the same jersey, Laidlaw’s priority this weekend has to be on the players actually in the team, and specifically on helping Russell negotiate his way through the challenge of making sensible decisions in the frenzied environment of a must-win Six Nations Test match.
“I will just be keeping a tab on him and making sure he is not getting too excited,” Laidlaw explained. “He likes to attack, which is brilliant – I would never take that away from him – but I can help steer him from inside. The centres have a big role in doing that as well.”
“Everybody talks about the nine and the ten but the centres have a massive role to play as well. They sit in behind and have a little bit more time and space to read the game.”
“If they are talking to Finn he can almost catch the ball and play the plays they are calling to help him out. As a collective, everyone needs to step up to the plate this weekend.”
“I will just be encouraging him to keep his head and see what is in front of him. If they have 14 boys in the front line there has to be space in the back field. If there is space in the back field we get it down there and we back our defence.”
For all the talk in recent days about Scotland’s failures when in possession against Wales, Laidlaw reckons it was the team’s defensive frailties which really made the difference between a bad day and a catastrophic one at the Principality Stadium.
“We were off the ball last weekend, we were not excited enough to defend,” he said. “We were maybe thinking too much about attacking. That was John Barclay’s big thing about last weekend: We have to defend better. We started so well but then switched off. It needs to function this weekend.
“That is the beauty of the sport. We can get back on the horse and fix things in a week. A week is a long time in sport. It is up to the boys who have been given the honour to wear the jersey to get out there and show what it is to play for Scotland. To defend for each other on the field, look after each other, knock those French boys down, tackle them low. They won’t like having to keep getting off the floor. We will have to keep tiring them out. Both through our defence and our attack.”