Clark Laidlaw: a Scot abroad … whipping up a Super Rugby storm with the Hurricanes

Proud son of Jedburgh has never looked back since moving to New Zealand 16 years ago

Clark Laidlaw has led the Hurricanes to six wins from six games so far in Super Rugby this year. Image: Hurricanes
Clark Laidlaw has led the Hurricanes to six wins from six games so far in Super Rugby this year. Image: Hurricanes

HAVE you watched any Super Rugby this season? I only ask because as things stand the Hurricanes are joint top of the table, six from six with a game in hand over fellow pace-setters the Blues and the Brumbies, and they are coached by a Scot.

Clark Laidlaw comes from good stock, son of Roy, cousin of Greig, and he may just outshine both of his illustrious relations if he carries on the way he has started in his very first job as head honcho in Super Rugby.

Not only have the Hurricanes enjoyed the perfect start to the Super Rugby season but they have done so without their best player. the irrepressible Ardie Savea, World Rugby’s Player of the Year in 2023, is currently enjoying a sabbatical with the Kobelco Kobe Steelers in Japan.


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The Hurricanes have a couple of All Blacks, Jordie Barrett (centre) and Tyrel Lomax (tighthead) are both Test match starters but scrum-half Cam Roigard is out for the season and the young and ambitious coach is working with a squad of players that mirrors him.

“We don’t have a whole host of All Blacks,” Laidlaw confirms from New Zealand thanks to the magic of WhatsApp. “We’ve lost Cam for the rest of the season. We are not the Blues or the Chiefs who have more established All Blacks than we do but we do have a lot of good, up and coming Super Rugby players so, if a couple of things go their way and they continue to develop, I’d like to think that we will have a few more All Blacks over the next couple of years.”

When I ask for names he argues that it is probably not fair to single out any one or two individuals from his squad but then does so anyway, offering the likes of Asafo Aumua (hooker and already an All Black), Brett Cameron a first five eighth (stand-off) who is also capped and Reuben Love, a full-back/fly-half who has been on fire this season and is seen by many as a natural replacement for the injured Crusader Will Jordan.

Coals to Newcastle, ice to the Arctic, whisky to Islay, use whatever metaphor you like because becoming a rugby coach in a nation that is famous for producing them is a brave call for anyone, let alone a young Scot who quit school at 16 and who played professional rugby, mostly sevens, without ever threatening the Test arena. His current success is, at least in part, down to his very own “Sliding Doors” moment.

“I was working as development officer with Jed while I was still playing for the club. I was employed by East Lothian Council and, to be honest, I was loving it,” he explains.

“I worked in the Tranent office with a Sports Development team and they taught me how to be organised rather than just being a rugby player who coached kids. They gave me a good foundation on how to be a proper sports development officer. I was coach at Jed, coach of the Border under-18s.

“I was starting to think about coaching longer term and I was conscious that the world is a big place and I could learn a lot from other people, it’s something I am passionate about.”

 

 

The offer to go to Taranaki came and the offer to go to Taranaki went. Laidlaw’s wife was pregnant with the first (of three) girls and the couple were in the middle of building a house. They turned the offer down. One year later they were asked again.

“The Taranaki CEO Mark Robinson (remember the name) got back in touch because he said the role had come up again and had my circumstances changed? We had to give it a crack, get a bit of travel, not only work wise but life in general, we’d see a bit of the world as well.

“I’m sure my wife will tell you because we came for a year and it’s been a big year because that was 2008!”

“I don’t know if it was gamble as such, it was more exciting. I never thought it would lead to being away from home, the prospect of settling in New Zealand for such a long time.”

It was quite a journey from coaching Taranaki age grade teams to topping the Super Rugby table with the Hurricanes but he basically got there by saying one word … “yes”. He took on every role that was offered and every job that was suggested. It broadened his mind, expanded his experience and Laidlaw’s can-do attitude very obviously opened a lot of doors. He was four years at Taranaki but, he explains, with all the roles he fulfilled it felt like he’d got a lifetime of experience under his belt.

Colin Cooper had coached the Hurricanes for seven odd years. He dropped down to Taranaki where he hit it off with the young Scot immediately. With Cooper’s support, Laidlaw attempted the same trip in the opposite direction only to fail first up. Perhaps he lacked the experience, perhaps the confidence.

One year later, in 2013, he tried again and this time he made it stick. He became the Hurricanes skills coach first up, defence the following year, attack the season after that. He had his foot in the door.

“I felt a bit more ready, a bit more ambitious,” he says of his second bite of the cherry. “Once you make that jump and go all in on professional coaching, it’s not a decision to be made lightly. Once you are a professional coach it’s like being a pro player, you are judged on results. It was the right place at the right time.”

 

 

He spent three years as assistant with The ‘Canes, a season in England with London Irish and another six seasons as head coach of the New Zealand Sevens squad, the first foreigner to coach any national New Zealand rugby team, where he won Commonwealth and World Cup gold, Olympic silver and the World Series. All of which teed him up for his current role.

What, I ask him, makes him the coach that he is?

“Ooh, that’s a good question,” Laidlaw buys himself some thinking time before talking about the obvious; growing up in Jed, having role models like Gary Armstrong and father Roy. The realisation that sports could take young folk places. An abiding passion for the game. This much we could predict, what he says next is a little less obvious.

“I also think that leaving school at 16 and becoming an engineer had a massive influence on me, especially my honesty,” says Laidlaw. “When you leave school at 16 you have to grow up a bit. I think that helped shape me as well as some of the other stuff.

“When you have worked for seven years in a factory, clocking in and clocking out, you have a massive gratitude around the job that you get to do at the minute. I never find work a chore at any stage because I know what (real) work looks like. I came back from Italy (he spent a year with Livorno as a teen) and I didn’t have a job so I laboured for two years. So, probably my upbringing and all those little bits and pieces gave me real honesty and a passion for the game.

“I think players like that. They like my honesty. I am pretty straight up and down. I am not interested in mind games or making people guess what I am thinking. I try and be as up front and honest as possible and just try to help.

“I was influenced by three amazing coaches: Rob Moffat, Bob Easson and Richie Gray. I was coached by two of them and Richie helped me to become a development officer. They were miles ahead of their time. Rob and Bob were involved in the Sevens and then the Borders. They were optimistic, they were (all about) skill development, they were player centred, and Richie was a bit of a visionary, which has been proved by all his ventures since then.

“They are the deep rooted foundations of who I am and New Zealand really helped grow my awareness of different lenses on the world, in particular the Maori lens and in particular the Sevens team. It has changed a lot of the way I think about family or how to get the best out of people. It’s had a massive influence on my out and out coaching.”

 

 

I ask for some clarity on that last bit. How coaching Pacific Islanders and/or Maori has helped him grow as a coach?

“I am really clear in who I am and I am really clear in my own identity and why I coach … that never changes,” Laidlaw replies. “How I coach different players is always tweaked to the individual. Ultimately, letting people be themselves allows them to bring the energy that they need. So treating them as individuals is critical to getting the best out of people.

“Understanding a different lens on the world allows you to see things differently. Player A and player B and player C can all share the same game-plan as a team but how they see the world can be completely different and that is what I love about working in this industry. It’s really healthy to have diversity of thought and upbringing. It doesn’t matter where you are from or the colour of your skin or what school you went to, having diversity of thought and ideas is pretty exciting and something that I really enjoy.”

Time is marching on and I ask him a couple of quick fire questions.

Does he scout Scottish qualified Kiwis, like the recent Saracens’ signing Fergus Burke, for Gregor Townsend?

“Nah, nah. I don’t.”

Is he involved in the tug of war over the French U20s and Hurricanes back-row prospect Patrick Tuifua?

“Sort of. He’s certainly part of the succession planning here. But I am not so naive to think that if a big French club comes with a bunch of Euros it won’t be a difficult decision for him and his family to make.”

Did he catch the Six Nations?

“I watch it as a fan, with a coffee in the morning with the kids running around. To be honest, I have studied Ireland and the way they play more than Scotland. It’s the best tournament in the world. Everyone can see how close the games are. I really enjoy what Scotland have done over the last period. People talk about winning the Six Nations but that’s a bloody hard thing to do, it’s very hard for Scotland. We have not won the Six Nations very often.”

And finally, what does he dream of at night when he goes to sleep, coaching Scotland to that elusive Grand Slam or coaching the All Blacks to a Rugby World Cup because Mark Robinson (remember him), who offered Laidlaw his first gig at Taranaki, is now the CEO of New Zealand Rugby.

“Do you want me to be really honest?” he asks. “I don’t dream too much around future opportunities. I genuinely understand how hard pro sport is but all my dreaming and thinking revolves around the Hurricanes at the minute.

“I am loving my time here. As a young guy in Jed, watching the Hurricanes on TV, if you’d told me that I’d be the coach of the Hurricanes I’d have said that that was a dream.

“I am so passionate in trying to make this team successful and trying to win and if that does lead to opportunities in the future I am more than willing to think about them in the future.

“I am Scottish. I always want Scotland to win. I would love to think that Scotland can win a Grand Slam and produce a team we can all be proud of. I love watching them on the TV. The fans seem so passionate at the minute.

“I am not sure that answers your question but it’s a tough industry and you can’t afford to have too many dreams. You have to think about the stuff that keeps you going in the now rather than think too far ahead.”


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About Iain Morrison 146 Articles
Iain was capped 15 times for Scotland at openside flanker between his debut against Ireland during the 1993 Six Nations and his final match against New Zealand at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa. He was twice a Cambridge ‘Blue’ and played his entire club career with London Scottish (being inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame in 2016). Iain is a lifelong member of Linlithgow Rugby Club. After hanging up his boots, he became rugby correspondent for The Sunday Herald, before moving to The Scotland on Sunday for 16 years, and he has also guest written for various other publications.

10 Comments

  1. The Laidlaws – Roy, Chris, Clark, Chris- must be rivalling the Beatties- John snr, Johnny, Jen, Bobby – and the Soles – David, Gemma, Tom, Chris, Jamie – to be Scotlands leading extended sporting family now. Although it looks like the Darge’s and the McCann’s could rival them in years to come!

  2. Well done Clark. I’ve always been watching you. I was tempted to ask you to come to Wasps with me many years ago. But seen you had flown the nest in the Borders to NZ. Border boys are made from sterner stuff. Well done.

  3. Well done to Laidlaw. Hopefully the SRU is keeping an eye on him as a potential future Scotland coach.

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  4. Scotland seem to be good at letting the best slip through their fingers, Clark being so successful in NZ, Greig Oliver who, before his untimely death, coaching in Ireland and Richie Gray coaching in South Africa with the national team, coaching the Dolphins, was in Fiji with Vern and back in France with Toulon.

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    • You do know that Greg Oliver was with the SRU before going to Munster? Also Richie Gray was employed by the SRU for a long time and was back with Scotland during Vern Cotter’s reign.

      Both may have flourished elsewhere but their careers started at the SRU. People change jobs.

      Clark Laidlaw seems to have been developed by the NZ Union. If we see him back home that would be great, but he seems settled and his children all seem pretty happy being Kiwis.

  5. Great to discover a Scottish rugby success story – even if we have to go to the ends of the Earth to find it. If he continues to be successful, I wonder if he might be considered for the Scotland coaching job when Townsend’s contract expires in a couple of years? Provided it isn’t renewed again of course, which would be more than I could bear.

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    • I think that this article is an indication that in some minds this is a
      reminder that there are prospects out there with ability and experience
      outside of the comfort zone of, some would say, the possible easier
      option of being in the SRU system. and as an embryonic CV I’d say it is
      pretty much crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s.
      Apart from anything else, a remarkable journey, and a reminder once
      again of the power of 7 a side Rugby to produce talented players and
      coaches.

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      • There is no shortage of excellent coaches scattered to the four corners George and frankly the world’s six-ranked team must surely be able to attract just one of them. The RFU today announced that the highly rated Andrew Strawbridge – part of the All Blacks coaching set-up last year – has joined Borthwick’s back room team. When the Aussies bombed in the World Cup, just as we did, they sacked Lame Eddie and brought in Joe Schmidt, who last week attracted yet another top Kiwi to his staff. Meantime the SRU has promised that Townsend will conduct a review into his own failure, without for a minute suggesting that there may be consequences or that his position is in any way in peril. It’s so disappointing, because as a player I loved Gregor’s maverick genius. But that brand has been tarnished by his performance as a coach and the more he clings on like a limpet, the worse it will become both for him and us. The entire set-up is rotten to the core and I could punch the wall with frustration at how badly our country is being let down. It defies belief.

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    • Sonsie@1.49. You suggest good points about the apparent lethargy in EH12 regarding having a ‘Dekko’ at available talent, is it that we are unable to find the funds for a Coach, a far more important part of the SRU package than a CEO in my opinion. I can’t condemn all aspects of GT’s tenure however he did seem to catch a bit of my way or the Highway from Dodson when it came to Russell Jnr.
      It has been a frustrating few seasons for me, if for no other reason that I can’t think of a way out of the Malaise the game appears to be in especially at the Grassroots, but a proper staged pathway, good coaching along with nutritional regimes are a must to progress into Pro or Semi Pro status.
      Does the SRU offer coaching advice to the Senior clubs? Could the SRU opt out of the ludicrously called SVNS and enter the competition as a Scottish 7 that would certainly benefit the Mens game in my opinion.
      Wasn’t one of the targets Russell attempted was to get Rugby into the State School system? If you think about it in the old amateur days it was a fairly natural progression from School to FP or Old Boy Clubs and from there to Junior then Senior Clubs, then progressive Representative levels.
      I’m sure that there are flaws in my thoughts but there again I’m not on £950k. Lets hope the Summer tour brings out some new talent, rest the existing players to a significant degree and David Barnes continues with articles illuminating coaching talent, especially Scots that have success.

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