STARRING performances and cameo roles are usually two different things, but Greig Laidlaw managed to play both parts against France with characteristic aplomb. As if 22 points with the boot were not enough from the man who started at scrum-half, he then slotted in at stand-off late on in a switch that proved crucial in finishing off opponents who were already on the ropes at the time.
Although for much of his earlier career Laidlaw was primarily a 10, he has not played in the position for some time barring a brief outing for Clermont at the start of the season. But he took to the role instantly, both proving a safer pair of hands than Finn Russell, who was taken off, and helping replacement scrum-half Ali Price steer the forwards through the decisive stages of the game.
The tactical substitution by Gregor Townsend was a surprise to many, but Laidlaw explained that Scotland’s head coach had let him know some hours before the game that it was an option he was considering. “Gregor gave me the heads up this morning,” the 32-year-old said after Scotland’s 32-26 win at Murrayfield. “It was a bit of surprise – I was wondering if there were injuries.
“Thankfully the forwards got on top at the end of the game. I didn’t have to do too much, just distribute, and that’s 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 could see the French forwards were getting tired, so I was able to sit out the back of our forward pod and push them forward. I wasn’t calling for too many out the back, only when I felt it was on.
“That’s when I knew we had them – when we were starting to carry hard, they were starting to lose the contacts and we were starting to win penalties. If something’s working, you don’t want to stray too far from it.
“It was easy enough to slip back in. I think the forwards were starting to carry well by that point, and once you’re on the front foot as a 9 or a 10 it becomes so much easier. So thankfully we were doing that.
“Ali came on and added a bit of zip, and again that just added to our game plan to finish strongly. Ali, Dents, [Ben] Toolis – the boys that came off the bench really added impetus, and I think that’s something we’ve been trying to build over the last few seasons is the impact of our bench. And I really felt you got that today.”
If repeated in subsequent Six Nations Championship games, the same switch would lack the element of surprise. In any case, it seems that for the time being at least, Townsend’s Plan A is to stick with Russell, who Laidlaw insisted would learn from the mistakes he made both against the French and eight days earlier in the loss to Wales.
“I certainly don’t expect to start [at 10] any time soon, put it that way,” Laidlaw continued. “But once we get into games and start breaking games up, I feel it’s a strength of mine to read defences and keep tempo in the game. And playing with somebody like Ali who has got good energy, good zip to his pass, I think we can help the team.
“But again, I think it helped the team today with that link, myself and Peter Horne. Horne is a good player: he adds a voice that we sometimes missed in other games. He’s an extra pair of eyes for Finn, to help him out and pick our attacking game.
“So we’ve got a few options. Whether we want to pick big ball-carriers or ball-players, we’re starting to develop a few options.
“He missed touch a couple of times, but the good thing about Finn is he realises that happens. He still had a lot of good touches within the game, his attacking game, so he’ll go away from it.It was a difficult game for everybody down in Wales.
“He’ll go away and analyse the game and everybody round about him will help him. We’ll get going for two weeks’ time against England. He’s a classy operator and he just needs time in the saddle to get going in the Six Nations. For 40 minutes today he did a lot of good things as well. I think it was 60 minutes he went off.”
Clearly, Russell will need to improve if Scotland are to have a chance of winning the Calcutta Cup, but that goes for the team as a whole too, as Laidlaw insisted. “Defensively we’re going to have to move it up another notch – we were caught out a couple of times again today. Certainly England will use their experiences after the last time they played us. I’m sure they’ll try and come with a similar game plan, so it’s up to us to both stop that and implement our game plan on them.”
England coach Eddie Jones began the propaganda war against Scotland with some barbed remarks at the Six Nations launch in London, and last week made some outspoken statements apparently intended to destabilise Wales as well. Asked if he paid any attention to Jones’ remarks, Laidlaw added:
“It’s hard not to hear these days. Eddie’s got a lot to say, hasn’t he? He likes to get out there and speak, but ultimately it doesn’t really matter – it’s about when you cross the line and get into the middle of the field. Last time I checked, Eddie wasn’t playing for England, so it’s about the players and implementing game plans we put together.
“As a Scotsman there’s no better game to play in. We’ll be in front of our own people again, we can use our record here that we’re starting to put together. But do we need to improve? Yes, I believe so. That comes from within our camp. It will be an extremely tough match, I’ve absolutely no doubt on that, but the score’s nil-nil at the minute and the game’s yet to kick off.”