Laidlaw has been key to Scotland bouncing back from the Tonga defeat, helping them to two Six Nations wins
IN THE analysis of what went down at Murrayfield last Sunday, many things have been explored. The profligacy of the Irish, for sure. The doggedness of the defence from the home team. Scotland’s strong scrum and lineout, Kelly Brown’s leadership as opposed to Jamie Heaslip’s. The wildly contrasting statistics. A hundred things and, buried among them without the prominence it deserved, was the fact that Greig Laidlaw had four shots at goal and nailed every one of them. On a day of tiny margins, the nerveless scrum-half did what his opposite number could not do.
We are sitting in a Melrose cafe on Friday morning and Laidlaw is speaking softly and unassumingly, but there is a toughness here that is unmissable, a winner’s mentality in that frame. Size doesn’t matter. For the longest time he’s been hearing how small he is and his attitude is simple. “F*** that,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how big I am, it’s how you chuck it about that counts.” He reckons that there’s a frustrated No.8 inside him somewhere. No.8 would be his ideal position. If he could die and come back to life he’d reappear at the back of a scrum and carry the ball hard into rival forwards all day long. “That would be great. Run about and hit people. Sounds good to me.”
Strange times, these. A year ago, everything was rosy in his club life and everything was grim on the Test scene. Now everything’s in reverse. Edinburgh are in a hole and Laidlaw is annoyed. “Really annoyed. It’s not good enough. We’re not bad players and the difference between us and Glasgow is minimal and yet they’re doing tremendously well and we’re not. The boys are in a bad place. So many defeats, but you need to pick yourself up and go again. They need to dust themselves down, push their chests out and show some confidence. We’ve got to change some stuff. In fairness, we’re changing it already because we can’t have another season like this one.”
He shakes his head in frustration. Just as well that there is something optimistic to talk about instead. Something that is putting a smile on his face, something that happened last Sunday that people are still trying to figure out. He’s watched the match again and knows that Scotland stole it, but, if anything, that just made it sweeter. There won’t be another game like that, he says. “We wanted to win and we wanted to win the respect of the Irish boys as well. We probably never gave them reason to respect us in the recent past. Unless you beat them you can’t expect respect from them, so hopefully they’ll think more of us now.”
This is a theme that has been a constant throughout Scotland’s championship, a dose of reality behind the scenes that has made Scotland steelier. Home truths have become an essential part of their make-up now. It is a mantra preached by interim head coach Scott Johnson and forwards coach Dean Ryan, with Laidlaw one of the disciples.
“I think we get overlooked as a team [by pundits outside Scotland] but I think we’ve given people reason to overlook us. We’ve been a Jekyll and Hyde side. If we can change that psyche then everybody will come around to thinking that we’re not a walkover. Wales will fancy their chances on Saturday but I don’t think they’ll be looking forward to coming up here now. They’ll know that they’re coming to play a hard game of rugby and maybe in the past they haven’t felt like that. Maybe they felt before that it wouldn’t too tough against us – and too often it hasn’t been.”
Laidlaw is pondering a question about what has changed, from the despair of the Tonga defeat last autumn to the situation they’re now in. Perhaps it’s the fact that they’re harder on themselves and central to that attitude is a realisation that it’s too early to be talking about corners being turned. “We haven’t cracked it and we know that. We’ve won two games of rugby but, if we lose the next two, we’re not looking so good, so there’s nobody getting carried away. We’re not stupid. Wales have a team that could really do damage and from [tonight] we’ll be back at the grindstone. We need to drive on now.”
Still he looks back at Tonga and the memory of a day that still motivates him. “I don’t think we were soft that day but, when we took the field, we got beaten in the areas we needed to win, like the tackle contest. So we were maybe soft in that sense. All credit to Tonga, but that was a disaster for us. They battered us. The lowest feeling ever. The worst. The changing room was mayhem, boys crying and people saying where do we go from here. We knew we’d let down the jersey, let down the country. Andy [Robinson] said afterwards that a game like that is a coach killer. We’d come off the back of a good tour and maybe went into it thinking we’d already beaten Fiji and Samoa away so it won’t be that hard a game and they caught us on the hop. It was unacceptable. Totally unacceptable. But you use the memory of it. It’s a horrible memory.”
That defeat typified the rot that had set in within the squad, a mental and physical frailty that Johnson and Ryan are rooting out. Johnson’s a character, no question. His players don’t know what’s coming next with him. Laidlaw says he “takes the mick” out of them in training and is like a dog with a bone when he sees them doing something wrong. If he sees a player who’s just standing about and not doing what he’s supposed to be doing he’ll halt things and say ‘You might as well be holding a STOP sign for all the good you’re doing there’. All week he’ll remind the player about his STOP sign. ‘You bringing it to the game, mate? Are you gonna leave it at home?’ Laidlaw says it’s done with humour but the message behind it is clear.
“Scott has lightened the mood in a sense, but, when you’re working, he’s straight to the point. If you do something wrong he’ll go through you and he’ll keep on at you through the week. Boys don’t like that. He’s just embarrassing boys and you don’t want to be embarrassed. I think he’s magic.”
Would Scotland have been able to hang in there against Ireland a year ago? Would they have had the fortitude to fight back? Laidlaw doesn’t think so. He’s sure they’d have lost.
Part of the reason they won is down to the forwards and the work Ryan is doing. Laidlaw says that Ryan rarely smiles when he’s talking about rugby and that’s fine by him. He says, as scrum-half, he’s 50 per cent forward and sits in on all the forwards meetings so he knows the dynamic up front and sees the way that Ryan has challenged his pack.
“After Italy he sat there and said, ‘Right, you won a game and we’re blowing smoke up each other’s arses here and that’s all well and good, but can you beat Ireland? Because you haven’t done it in the past, have you? You haven’t been good enough’.
“Ryan’s doctrine is simple. Rugby is not all that complicated. It’s about winning collisions, it about winning breakdowns, it’s about hitting people hard and then building on top of the foundations. We have a long way to go. Scott and Dean will tell us that when we get back in camp [today], but we know it. It’s bwrilliant that we’re at home again, but Wales will be a huge test. They’re back in form. It was a horrible day in Italy but Wales played well, played in the right areas and avoided a banana skin. They’ve got very good players but we’ve got dangerous runners as well. It’s just a question of getting the ball to them.”
The ones he’s talking about are Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland and Tim Visser, but also Matt Scott, a centre who is emerging well this season. “Matty’s coming on in leaps and bounds and just needs to keep coming out of his shell and take games by the scruff of the neck because he’s got all the ability. He needs to impose himself on games. He’s quiet and that’s something I’ve tried to help him with at Edinburgh. Scott [Johnson] has his opinions as well. Matt is one that he likes to embarrass in that motivational way of his. I can’t remember some of the analogies he uses for Matt, but he’s always on at him because he knows he has the class. Matt is learning all the time. At the start he was a bit shy coming in, he was thinking ‘I’m a young boy I shouldn’t be saying anything’. I keep telling him, ‘Matty, keep speaking, son. Just keep speaking’. He can make the guys round about him look good when he’s in full flight.”
After so many dark days, the skies are brightening. There is a new focus in this Scotland team and as long as it remains then they have a chance and they know it. “Winning games of rugby makes me tick. That’s what I’m all about. I love it. Especially at Murrayfield. When you come in afterwards and you know you’ve done yourself proud, your family proud, your jersey proud, there is an elation but also a relief. It’s good to see the boys happy in a Scotland jersey but more important to remember why it happened.”
Twitter: @Tom English Sport