MIKE BLAIR thinks Scotland may be tested by a far more adventurous game-plan on Saturday than they have been used to encountering when playing Wales in recent years, with the success the Scarlets have had in reaching the last eight of the Champions Cup this season likely to have an impact on how the national team go about their business during this Six Nation campaign.
“It is definitely something you have to think about because there will be a backbone of Scarlets players in there. Wales have expanded their game, with more passes by forwards when trying to manipulate the defence, which is something Scarlets do very well,” said the Scottish assistant coach.
“Scarlets are renowned for playing from deep, trying a lot of offloads, a higher risk game, which isn’t something Warren Gatland would usually buy into. But there were times in the Lions series [which Gatland coached last summer] where there were a lot of offloads and playing from deep, so I’m not sure what his approach will be. We have to prepare for both eventualities.”
While Wales might be a bit more carefree with the ball in hand, Blair is not expecting them to completely shelve the physicality which has been so important to their success in recent years – especially in defence. He predicts that the Scots will have to handle a significant step up in intensity from their November Test series.
“The teams in the autumn all sat off a little bit in defence and allowed us to play a little bit more. We’d expect most of the teams in the Six Nations to be coming up and putting a lot more line speed on us … a lot more pressure on us,” he mused. “There is more pressure that comes with Six Nations games. Whether that’s a media thing, a crowd thing or expectations you put on yourselves – there are definitely different dynamics you have to deal with in the autumn compared with the Six Nations.”
The great debate over whether Greig Laidlaw or Ali Price should occupy the Scotland number nine jersey rumbles on, with the former making a strong case of his selection on Sunday by playing the full 80-minutes and kicking 19 of his team’s 29 points for Clermont Auvergne in a pulsating French Top 14 clash against Montpellier.
The Scotsman’s contribution was not quite enough to get his team a win, with a late try from Nemani Nadolo snatching the points for Montpelier, but it did send out a strong message that Laidlaw’s lack of recent game time should not preclude him from being able to start for Scotland against Wales this Saturday.
“I think he’ll be ready,” said Blair. “Had the game yesterday been 15 minutes off the bench you wouldn’t be able to see what his fitness was like and how he deals with different situations, so that might have been a different discussion. But I think he’s shown that he’s match fit and hasn’t picked up any extra injuries, so he’ll be available for selection.”
Blair is perfectly positioned to assess the respective strengths of both players, having worked closely with – and competed for team selection against – each of them during his own illustrious playing career.
He was Edinburgh’s starting scrum-half when Laidlaw was first making his way in the pro game, and the younger man was often deployed at stand-off so that they could both be accommodated in the team. It was a similar situation for Scotland between 2010 and 2012.
Then, when Blair joined Glasgow Warriors in 2015, Price was in his first year on a full-time professional contract.
“The thing that caught my eye at Edinburgh was the amount of time Greig spent on his own game working on his passing,” recalled the coach. “Watching the game last night, it hit home how good his footwork is. He is not taking extra steps to the ball and he is able to whip it away. That has changed massively from the start of his time with Edinburgh in 2006-07. His game has moved on a lot. A lot of it is natural talent but a lot is that ability to work on his game.”
Blair continued: “Ali has been great. When I first went to Glasgow two and a half years ago he had not played a huge amount and when he started playing a few more games at the tail end of that season his ability was clear to see.”
“That speed of pass is something he has worked hard on. His kicking game has improved the most. I remember talking to him two and a half years ago that the main aim is to make his worst kick not as bad as a one out of ten – make his worst kick a five out of ten. Now we have that and the aim is to make every kick a nine or ten. That is something he has worked really hard on. His pace is great and he brings a running threat around the breakdown.”
“The pair can be interchangeable. Greig has done it [started matches on the bench], but the way he can manage a game, obviously it is excellent when he starts because you can see how the game unfolds – plus you’ve got the goal-kicking.”
“Likewise, with Ali, he has strengthened his game management side and you would feel confident bringing him on in different situations as well, and you have the speed and tempo he can bring – but both can do each others’ jobs as well.”
“They are both very confident in their own abilities. We have a way that we want to play and I think the players we have can fit into those roles.”
While Laidlaw came through his match unscathed and looking pretty sharp, it wasn’t all good news news from France yesterday, with Toulouse second-row Richie Gray being ruled out of the Wales game with a calf problem.
“Richie wasn’t involved in the autumn and wasn’t involved in the summer tour so it’s a situation we’ve been able to handle in the past,” said Blair.
“Obviously he’s a quality player and a guy we were really keen to see back in the group and see how he fits in. He needs to get himself right as there’s no point having him here if he isn’t 100-per-cent right. We’ll look forward to seeing him when he’s ready.”
Blair added that he expected Gray’s absence to be a matter of weeks rather than months.