A few short months back Clark Laidlaw was watching the Hurricanes he helped coach finish second in an absorbing Super Rugby final to a Highlanders’ try that will be hotly debated for as long as bars keep serving beer. Fast forward to November and the London Irish club that he moved half way around the globe to help are rooted to the bottom of the Aviva Premiership without a league win, not so much as a bonus point to their name. What on earth was the Scot thinking?
“The reason we came back to the UK was dictated by family,” says the man whose three daughters include a nine-week-old baby. “We went to New Zealand for a year and ended up there for seven! We stayed a bit longer than we initially planned but we always wanted to come back and give it a crack, living in the UK with a family and see what we thought.”
Laidlaw originally moved to coach the Taranaki Academy back in 2008 and he credits the club’s coach, Colin Cooper, for giving him his first adult rugby position and giving him a little adult maturity too.
But for all he has learned down under it was two home-grown coaches, Rob Moffat and Bob Easson, who proved to him the benefits of a positive and optimistic approach to coaching during his time with the Scotland Sevens team, despite Scotland’s well-documented problems.
After the “Naki” academy Laidlaw did time with the New Zealand Sevens squad under Sir Gordon Tietjens, the Taranaki senior side, Samoa (briefly) and he has been based in Wellington with the Hurricanes these last three years.
Laidlaw started out as a skills specialist, became a defensive guru in his second season and this year he was working primarily as an attacking expert with the likes of Julian Savea and Nehe Milner-Skudder at his disposal!
“I am not sure ‘expert’ is the word I would use,” he says modestly. “I think the New Zealand view is far broader, they don’t look at the game in isolation, so coaches and players are not pigeon-holed just to look at defence or attack or whatever, it’s more of a combined effort.
“Even when you are coaching the other coaches will have a big input into your area. Someone has to have responsibility but they are more cohesive in the way they look at the game and that is something we are trying to do more here at London Irish because you can’t play one unit of the game in isolation.”
This broad expertise is probably a good thing because London Irish need all the help they can get ahead of their Challenge Cup tie with Edinburgh at Madejski Stadium, Reading, tomorrow, although Laidlaw argues that they have already played the strongest six Premiership clubs in the opening six weeks of the league, which puts their lowly league standing into some sort of perspective.
A new coaching team, headed up by Tom Coventry, formerly of the Chiefs, is struggling to make an impact despite the presence of numerous Scots in the squad; Sean Maitland and Blair Cowan, the two current internationals, Brendan McKibben and Scott Steele offering Vern Cotter alternatives at nine should Scotland suffer a scrum-half crisis.
The Exiles’ problem is financial as much as anything. They can’t compete when Manu Tuilagi has signed a deal with Leicester reportedly worth £420,000 per annum and Bath have signed Welsh number eight Taulupe Faletau just a few weeks after luring his Scottish equivalent, David Denton, to the Rec.
The strength in depth of some others Aviva clubs is markedly better, but instead of using excuses Laidlaw argues that the weakest four clubs – Irish, Newcastle Falcons, Worcester Warriors and Sale Sharks (who currently sit one place higher than Bath) – are in much the same financial boat and that it is the coaches’ task to help narrow that gap between them and the wealthiest top six.
Irish have secured their only win of the season in the Challenge Cup and Laidlaw admits that the club is torn between viewing tomorrow’s tie as an opportunity to rest a few key players or as a chance to boost the squad’s collective psyche.
“It’s a competition that we can try and build some confidence [in],” says the Scot. “We played well against a second-string Agen team and then had our best game against Grenoble where we lost in the last play of the game (in France) when they were at full strength so that certainly helps develop confidence.
“We may take it as an opportunity to rest some key players but we will try and use it to develop our game because we are still at the very early stages of building so it’s a good opportunity for us to do that.
“We got a good look at Edinburgh in the last few weeks and obviously they have been the focus this week. They are very organised with a good defence. I suppose the coach coming from South Africa means they are a little South African – they do a lot of double tackles and they tackle a bit higher than some other teams.
“They stay in games very well through an organised defence and a very good set piece, they are tough to break down, so I’ve been reasonably impressed.”
Edinburgh will hope to impress him a little more tomorrow, when they should beat whatever side the Exiles choose to field.