GREIG LAIDLAW has confirmed that his continued availability for Scotland was a key issue in the contract negotiations ahead of his move to French giants Clermont Auvergne on a three year deal next summer.
Local reports indicated that the 31-year-old Scotland skipper was being put under pressure to call time on his international career, but Laidlaw insisted that having to do so would have been a deal breaker.
“To be fair to Clermont, they were pretty open from the outset, and as we have regulation nine [which governs player release for Test rugby] at the moment I’m still an exile and it’ll be exactly the same case when I go down there,” said the scrum-half, who has played 53 times for Scotland since his debut in 2010.
“They were open at the start, they wanted me to go there and it was one of the stipulations for me that I keep playing for Scotland at this moment in time. We were able to come to an agreement, which is clearly good for me.”
“I’m really excited,” he continued. “You look at the way they’re playing at the moment in the Champions Cup and the Top 14 – they’re playing a great brand of rugby. It’s the chance to go into a different league again. I’ve played the Pro12 and the Premiership and I think I’d have regretted it for the rest of my career and probably the rest of my life if I hadn’t taken this opportunity. They’ve got a great facility and the make-up of the players they have there can only further develop me as a player.”
Rather than this move heralding the beginning of the end of his international career, Laidlaw believes it may help prolong his time at the top.
“It was part of my decision with Morgan Parra being there. I’m not going to play eighty minutes week-in and week-out. I’m playing a lot of rugby at the moment down at Gloucester. So that competition for a place will make me a better player but in terms of not playing eighty minutes every week, it’s got to be good for me as a player. None of us are getting any younger,” he explained.
Laidlaw added that he had spoken to Vern Cotter, who was at Clermont for eight years before taking up his current role as Scotland’s head coach, about the move.
“I don’t think it is any secret that I am a big admirer of him in terms of how he’s helped me with my game and how he’s helped the team, so, yeah, I got his opinion on a few things. He’s obviously spent a lot of time in that part of the world so he was helpful for me in that sense,” he said.
Cotter will return to France next summer as head coach of Montpellier after being told by the Scottish Rugby Union that they were replacing him with Gregor Townsend. The outgoing man has expressed his disappointment at not being able to finish the job he has started in Scotland, but Laidlaw says that the imminent change in leadership will not be a factor within the squad during the eight games they have left under the New Zealander’s tutelage.
“Credit to the man Vern is, he’s extremely focussed on all things rugby and he’s not mentioned anything else. All Vern wants to do is win games of rugby. As a player group we understand that’s the way of the world, things happen which are out of our control, so we’re very focussed on giving Vern a good last eight Tests,” said Laidlaw.
“When the time comes the boys will definitely thank Vern for what he’s done for us as a group and as individuals. We’ll be determined to send Vern off in the best way possible, simply because the players feel as though he has helped them with their game and moved things forward. If we can send him on his way with a few more wins under his belt then that would be great.”
“It was out-with the players’ control. Things happen within the game, and Scottish Rugby clearly wanted a Scottish coach in there, they’ve done that, and Gregor’s had success in the recent past with Glasgow. He’s done a good job there and they feel that the time is right and it’s the decision they made so we’ll go with that.”
Scotland’s opening match in this international window will see Laidlaw and his team-mates take on Australia for the first time since that heart-breaking and controversial quarter-final defeat in last year’s World Cup.
“It’ll be a bit strange, first time playing against them again, but the way that unfolded … it wasn’t the Australians doing the way the game unfolded, was it? It was nothing to do with them,” said Laidlaw, pointing out that it was an error by referee Craig Joubert which handed Wallaby stand-off Bernard Foley the chance to secure victory with a last minute penalty.
“We can’t get caught up in that moment. We can use it positively, but if we start thinking too much about it then it could come back to haunt us. We need to stay in the moment, play what we see in front of us. We’re going in with a strong game plan and we will have a few surprises for them. If we can start the game well, hopefully it’ll go to the back of our minds. If we turn them over this time it’ll make it that little bit easier.”
“Nothing will ever make up for it. The chance to be in a semi-final was massive, and we talked about that as a group of players. We have another crack against Australia who have been on a bit of a sticky patch.”
“They’ve been struggling a little in that they’ve not been winning games consistently so we really feel the start of the game is going to be key,” he continued. “If we get in amongst them and pull a few surprises to get us on the front foot, we can grow confidence from there and hopefully they’ll start to think: ‘Here we go again, we’re in a little bit of trouble’. If we can get a strong foothold in that first 20 minutes then we think we’ll be right in the hunt.”
“They are not a bad team by any stretch of the imagination, they’ve got brilliant players and they’ll be looking at getting an upturn in their fortunes when they come on this trip. But we can just concentrate on ourselves.”
Images: Craig Watson