Greig Laidlaw critics forced on to the back foot

Greig Laidlaw. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Greig Laidlaw. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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WITH Glasgow’s vital match against the Ospreys due to kick off a few hours after I write, there’s nothing much to be said now about their chance of a home draw and of eventually emerging as the Guinness Pro12 champions.

Nevertheless – and not only in case things go wrong – it’s worth remarking on the manner in which Gregor Townsend has managed his squad, resting players when it seemed desirable, and slotting in fresh ones. He has made the point that to be successful in the professional game, a club now really needs to have two first XVs, or, to put it more precisely, at least two players in every position capable of being in the starting XV. Actually you need a bit more than that because the demands on props and hookers are now so intense.

While Glasgow at their best are probably some bit stronger than Edinburgh at their best – despite the result of the 1872 Inter-City Cup, it’s nevertheless true to say that the principal difference between the two clubs has been Glasgow’s considerably greater strength in depth. This is something that Alan Solomons will want to address if his contract at Edinburgh is extended, as one presumes and hopes it will be. He is already recruiting a number of young Scottish players, but most of these are probably a year or two short of being ready for full-time engagement in the professional game.

It was no disgrace losing the European Challenge Cup final to Gloucester, but the final score did flatter Edinburgh somewhat. Gloucester played a much faster and more ambitious game, and in the first half especially Edinburgh looked a bit out of their depth. One might remark that those who have criticised Greig Laidlaw might revise their words, having seen how well he performed behind a pack that gave him the quick and secure ball he had too often been denied when playing for Scotland. In contrast, young Sam Hidalgo-Clyne had a difficult evening and much of the ball he got was so slow that he was compelled to kick more often and more speculatively than one would have wished.

Nevertheless, he is one of the Edinburgh players whose development this season has been fascinating to watch, and probably few now doubt that he appears to be Laidlaw’s understudy and natural successor. Henry Pyrgos may have something to say about that, and so, in a year or two, may Glasgow’s very impressive young Ali Price.

At 28, Roddy Grant is no longer a youngster, and it may be that his chance of playing international rugby has slipped away. Yet nobody, I think, has been more valuable to Edinburgh this season. He almost never has a bad match, and generally reads the game excellently. Judgment and speed of thought are often at least as important as power and speed of foot. A lot of back-rowers not as good as Grant have been capped for Scotland. If he never plays for the national team, he must be accounted one of the most unlucky of recent times.

The headline of an item on the BBC rugby website the other day, read “Retiring Hines returns to Scotland”. Retiring is not a word anyone is likely to associate with Nathan, but I suppose the headline writer meant only that he has retired from playing. He will surely be an asset to the Scotland coaching squad and not only because of his previous association with Vern Cotter at Clermont Auvergne. Sometimes in the last couple of years the Scottish forwards have seemed to be less streetwise than their opponents. That was certainly the case when we played Ireland in the last match of the Six Nations. Of course most players anywhere are not as streetwise as Paul O’Connell and Jamie Heaslip, but Hines was one never lacking in either know-how or the mastery of what are called the black arts of ruck and especially maul. If he can impart some of his expertise in these areas to the Scotland pack, then our forwards are less likely to come off second-best.

The Six Nations left most of us feeling a bit dispirited, after the promise of the autumn. Yet in three of the matches – France, England and Wales – we looked, as Andy Nicol remarked, not at all like a Wooden Spoon side. One feels that a 5 per cent improvement would make the difference between narrow defeats and victory, and it shouldn’t be beyond the wit of Vern Cotter and his team of coaches to effect this. After all, Edinburgh, so feeble last year and in the opening weeks of this season, have improved by at least 10 per cent, probably a good bit more.

Still, that’s enough of the professional game for the moment. It’s the Selkirk Sevens this afternoon: rugby for the pure pleasure of the spectator, even rugby on holiday.