Y OU should never take a knife to a gun fight. It’s sound advice, especially when it comes to a collision sport like rugby where, as Jonny Wilkinson recently concluded, the hits are becoming car crashes.
The knife analogy is probably misleading because Scotland came out all guns blazing in the last Six Nations except the firearms they utilised were pea shooters in comparison to the opposition’s howitzers.
One of the many unwritten rules of rugby states: If one team can bully the opposition, they will. Scotland have been the poor sap on the beach getting sand kicked in his face for far too long now but that may be about to change with the introduction of two South African “project players” allied to the return to form and fitness of several other big lumps and a coach who looks like he can eke the best out of what he has available to him.
Vern Cotter’s first-choice front row averages 115kgs and all of them are mobile, ball-carrying players who can get around and contribute across the field. Three of the four locks top 120kgs and Richie Gray is fully motivated because Grant Gilchrist is breathing down his neck.
Further back, David Denton and Josh Strauss are going to batter a few bodies whichever one gets the nod at No.8, and John Hardie is well named, the hardest pound-for-pound tackler in the entire team.
“Power is a big part of it, absolutely, Vern’s not shied away from that in his selection. That’s one of his big things,” says Greig Laidlaw, who is almost inevitably the smallest man on the field and the exception that proves the power rule.
“We’ve had two games against the Italians who have a big power pack and we’ve come out very well and then against France who have one of the most powerful packs in the world and we stood our ground at the weekend at least, if not bettered them for large parts of the game on what was a tricky pitch.
“So power is a huge aspect. If the pack of forwards are marginally on top it’s a lot easier. Me and Finn (Russell) can then sit back and pull the strings a lot easier when we are going forward.”
Laidlaw has been sitting back and pulling the strings in his understated way for several seasons now and, like a proper puppeteer, his work hasn’t always been seen or appreciated. Those that were calling for his replacement by Edinburgh’s quicksilver scrum-half Sam Hidalgo-Clyne were a little too hasty. The youngster’s time at the highest level will come but not until his game management improves.
He doesn’t score many himself, but Laidlaw is at the creative heart of a good many tries that are finished off by others. His quick thinking created one and his quick feet created a second try against Argentina last November. When Mark Bennett scored at Twickenham the little scrum-half was involved in the build-up three times, little darts from the base of the breakdown preventing the English defence from drifting early, before his long pass found the centre lurking on the right flank.
Laidlaw’s ability to see things others don’t was again evident in Paris last weekend when Scotland’s only try came from his perfectly weighted diagonal kick, from his part-time position as first receiver, which found acres of space on the right wing, allowing Tommy Seymour to beat Scott Spedding to the ball.
He admits that last weekend’s international was one of the hardest that he has ever encountered. Anything above seven kilometres is deemed to be a busy afternoon for the former Jed scrum-half; in Paris Laidlaw ran for nine kilometres. But the Scots have put down a marker and they now know that nothing less is acceptable.
Cotter’s men will need to replicate that sort of intensity and physical performance if they are to fulfil their potential in the coming tournament and they still need someone calling the shots and kicking the points.
In international matches where he has been the designated kicker, Laidlaw is averaging almost ten points per match with a total tally of 376 to his credit. He managed 85 per cent success for Gloucester last season and his 93 per cent kick success (15 from 16) in last season’s Six Nations was the highest strike rate of anyone… Leigh Halfpenny (80 per cent) included.
Add in his leadership skills and it is easy to see what Laidlaw brings to the Scotland party, but there remains an uneasy suspicion he might be the last of his ilk, the end of the dynasty. Will rugby find space at the highest levels for a small, creative player should Laidlaw’s own baby son Ruary take the step into the adult game one day?
“It’s a question I struggle to answer at the minute,” comes his response. “I was worried about rugby in RWC’07. Everyone got absolutely massive and the World Cup was a kick fest. Teams just kicking the ball and trying to smash each other.
“I think if you look at the game now it has maybe changed back just a little bit. You’ve got your players in the Premiership, where I play, you have your Jonathan Joseph and your Kyle Eastmond who are more jinky and more exciting.
“Matthew Morgan from Wales and Finn Russell and Hoggy (Stuart Hogg), they’re not the biggest but they are wonderful players. I hope that the game goes down that route. Obviously you have the big boys as well in the pack but I’d like to think that it’s about beating defenders in the back line rather than purely power.”
Ahead of their opening fixture against Japan, Laidlaw confesses that Scotland have already tossed a coin and lost the use of the home dressing room at his home club of Gloucester. Still he insists that the 16,000 Kingsholm ground will be full to capacity with rugby-mad fans even if some of the traditional ‘Glaus’ supporters will support the Cherry and Whites of Japan if only out of habit.
And habits can be hard to shake, not least the losing one. Laidlaw’s earliest rugby memory was watching the South of Scotland get pummelled by the All Blacks at Netherdale, a one-sided 84-5 kyboshing that failed to deter him from taking up the sport. But being on the wrong end of a big score has been Scotland’s lot all too often in recent years and every hint at a sunny new dawn for the national team has quickly been followed by a dirty great cloud raining on the parade. Is there any reason to think this time things may be different?
“Scotland have been here before, as you say,” Laidlaw concedes. “We feel as a players’ group that there is something very strong in this group. We feel as if we’ve got a different culture this time around and I think we’re defending better, we have a great spread across the field in attack and we look very dangerous when we hold on to the ball.
“So that in itself has given us reason to be optimistic but we understand that optimism and results are two different things and this team will be judged on results like every other team.”