GREIG LAIDLAW flashes a wry smile when the inevitable question arrives. The 33-year-old scrum-half has been around the block enough times to have known it was coming, and he has shown time and again during his career that he has the mental fortitude to shrug off any negative energy directed his way.
So, when he was quizzed earlier this week about whether he believes he can win back the Scotland No 9 jersey which was surrendered to Ali Price for the final two games of last season’s Six Nations, the feisty Borderer didn’t miss a beat.
“Without a shadow of a doubt I feel I can win the shirt back,” he fired back. “I’ll fight to the death for my jersey, I’ll fight tooth and nail for it if I have to. I won’t be shying away from that.
“I’m looking forward to the challenge and I think it’s good for me. Ali is playing really well, George [Horne] is coming in as a young scrum-half, but I think I add value to the group and you probably saw that in the latter stages in the game down in England.”
Which brings us – almost inevitably – to Scotland’s last outing, when the team demonstrated inside the space of 80 crazy minutes at Twickenham just how vulnerable they are when the wheels come off, but also how dangerous they can be when they find their groove.
After that match, head coach Gregor Townsend spoke about the influence of his benched captain as the squad looked to regroup after a torrid opening 40 minutes during which they had fallen 31-7 behind.
“Greig at half-time was excellent,” he said. “He has been excellent all week as one of our leaders who was not in the starting team. He spoke to Ali [Price] and Finn [Russell] at half-time and he was a calming influence on the backs. It’s tough when you’re 30 points down. It’s tough to get back into the process of working out how to get some respect back. Greig was very calm.”
Scotland have been a Jekyll and Hyde team for some time, and it is notable that their biggest calamities have occurred when their little general has been absent – think USA in June 2018, Wales in February 2018, Fiji in June 2017 and England in March 2017.
While he might not offer the same sort of youthful zing as Price and Horne, Laidlaw does provide a level-headed rugby intelligence which will be invaluable at the World Cup in just over two months’ time, when Scotland will need to play well but more importantly must avoid playing really badly.
Price and Horne have exciting futures but they are light years behind Laidlaw in terms of big match exposure – whether that be through his 71 caps for Scotland (including leading Scotland into the last World Cup) since his debut in 2010; or touring with the Lions in 2017; or playing hard-edged club rugby week-in-and-week-out over 14 seasons for Edinburgh, Gloucester and Clermont.
“He’s fast and he’s an excellent rugby player who has played well for Glasgow, but I’m very fast in my top two inches and that’s somewhere you need to be fast,” was Laidlaw’s pointed response when asked about trying to match Horne’s exceptional pace.
Laidlaw has been back in France since the end of the Six Nations, helping Clermont Auvergne reach the Top 14 Final, and kicking five from five in that denouement to keep his team in touch before they eventually went down 24-18 to Richie Gray’s Toulouse.
Moving to Clermont in 2017, when he was 31, seemed a bold move at the time given what we are told about overseas players being run into the ground by French clubs. In fact, it has proven to be a typically canny decision by Laidlaw in terms of allowing him to not just stay at the top of his game, but to continue developing as a player.
“I can only speak for Clermont and the way I’ve been looked after is exceptional, both from a medical and a strength and conditioning side, right through to the coaches,” he says. “That was part of the reason I went to Clermont. I knew Morgan [Parra] was there and that I wouldn’t have to start games every week. That’s really helped me, especially this season. I’ve played when I’m fresh, I’m really happy with how I’ve played for Clermont and I feel I’m in good shape.
“Going down to France, I try to play quickly all the time,” he adds, addressing one of the major criticisms which has been directed towards him by those who would rather see Price and Horne have a clear run at the No 9 jersey. “If the ball is quick, we’re good to go. You’re certainly always trying to develop that, and Gregor is big on his support lines from scrum-half, so that’s something new I’ve been trying to develop.
“You’re always trying to add stuff to your game, and hopefully defensively I’m a little bit stronger. That’s something I’ve worked hard on.
“But underpinning it all is the way I see the game. My ability to control things, goalkicking, that’s all within my control. I’ve got to make sure I look after what I do well.”
One last hurrah?
That drive – which has characterised his career – burns even harder at the moment because he knows this will be his last World Cup, meaning he has one chance to exorcise the demons of four years ago, when a highly questionable refereeing performance from Craig Joubert left all of Scotland nursing a sense of grievance at their quarter-final defeat to Australia, and he is determined to grab it with both hands.
“It’s big, of course it is, the last World Cup still burns away inside me and it always will,” he reflects. “But we won’t get it back, so we’re trying to put our energy into this one, take our learnings from that game and that tournament into this one.
“It would obviously be good to be in a quarter-final again and then be in the game, but we’d be trying to use the experience from last time to get over the line and progress as far as we can in the tournament.
“But at this stage, we can’t look past the first game. We’ve got Ireland first up in a difficult pool, so we need to negotiate the pool first and then take it from there.”
He is asked if the conclusion of a successful World Cup campaign would be a good time to bow out of the international game.
“I’ve not thought about it that much,” he finally replies, after taking longer than usual to think about the question. “It’s about the team, about the jersey. I’ll make a decision after the World Cup, come what may.”