Interview: Greig Laidlaw on his baptism of fire for Clermont

Greig Laidlaw is relishing making his debut today for French champions Clermont Auvergne against Toulon.
Photograph: Billy Stickland/INPHO/REX/Shutterstock
Greig Laidlaw is relishing making his debut today for French champions Clermont Auvergne against Toulon. Photograph: Billy Stickland/INPHO/REX/Shutterstock
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The plan was a good one, sound and sensible in every respect, it was well-conceived and it was well-executed right up to the point that it unravelled faster than an EastEnders plot line.

It was hatched by Clermont coach Frank Azema who had worked hard to convince the Scotland skipper to put pen to paper and he wanted to introduce his new signing to the rigours of France’s Top 14 gently, off the bench, ease him into the action. Instead Greig Laidlaw has been thrown off a cliff.

On the opening weekend of the Top 14, he is starting this afternoon’s re-run of last season’s final when Clermont host three-time European Cup winners Toulon at Stade Marcel Michelin, one of the most vibrant stadiums in world rugby when the “Vulcans” are in good voice.

The 31-year-old may be a veteran of Scotland and Lions’ fame but even the normally unflappable Borderer admits that his nerves are jangling ahead of the clash with Toulon.

“I think that Frank Azema wanted to ease me in gently,” says Laidlaw, “but Morgan Parra is carrying an injury to I am starting this week. I am delighted to get an opportunity and it great to be at home so, yeah, I’m excited.

“The boys have been filling me in, the stadium is going to be jumping and full, with a 26,000 capacity, I think it is now. Like I said it wasn’t really planned. Frank planned to ease me in gently but with Morgan injured he rather start me than the young fella, which is good for me.

“You get a little bit like that [nervous]. You get to a stage in your career where you feel experienced but then you get a big opportunity this weekend and you do feel a little like that. That is why I moved, this is why I play the game, to play in games like this one come Sunday afternoon.”

Scotland boast just two players in the entire Top 14, Richie Gray the other, which perhaps suggests that while the national team is improving, it isn’t stacked with world class players. For comparative reasons there are four Portuguese players in the French top flight, including French-born flanker Julien Bardy who Vern Cotter has just taken from Clermont to Montpellier.

He was much too diplomatic to say anything out loud when the Kiwi was shown the Murrayfield exit but Laidlaw was tight as a tick with Cotter and there was speculation that the scrum-half might have followed him to Montpellier. Had he spoken to Cotter on the subject?

“Yeah, I had,” Laidlaw responds, “but I had also spoke to Vern about Clermont before I knew he was going down to Montpellier and I had decided to come here before things had gone too far [with Montpellier]. I was a fair bit down the track and had pretty much made my decision to come here.”

His decision to move to France could have signalled an end to his international career but Laidlaw appeared in Gregor Townsend’s first squad and there may be life left in those little legs yet.

He is under pressure from Ali Price, Glasgow’s livewire nine who is electric over the first 20 but we have been around these particular houses before and more than once.

Ahead of the 2003 World Cup the pundits had Mike Blair replacing Bryan Redpath but the skipper stayed the course.

Ahead of RWC15 the pundits had Sam Hidalgo-Clyne replacing Laidlaw but the skipper stayed the course and in some style.

The younger men offer an attacking threat with the ball in hand that Laidlaw cannot, but they don’t come close, as yet, to matching Laidlaw’s game management, his calm leadership or his ability to turn penalties into points off the tee.

Clermont recognised his value, signing the Scot for a approximate annual salary of €500,000 for three years. That would have been good business in any season but it is all the more impressive since new incentives were brought in by the French Federation of Rugby (FFR) to halt the influx of foreigners. This season Top 14 clubs must have at least 14 French qualified players in their match day 23 or risk fines and even the deduction of points.

Moving to a foreign country can be a daunting experience but Laidlaw has at least one familiar face to help him and his family settle into a new country and an alien culture… fellow Jethart Neil McIlroy who has been club manager since forever.

Theplayer is a different era to the older man but he pays a handsome tribute to McIlroy’s hard work behind the scenes ensuring that everything has gone smoothly.

“He makes sure my family are happy so I can concentrate on the rugby… Border boys look after each other,” is how Laidlaw puts it.

If he could always count on McIlroy’s able assistance, the same cannot be said for the French club game which is generally reckoned to be a decade behind their UK counterparts in terms of player welfare, conditioning and even the primordial style of forward-orientated rugby that French clubs play… well, most of them.

“It’s early days yet,” Laidlaw concedes, “but my first impression is very much that Clermont are miles out in front in terms of the stuff like how they look after the players. They are very much like a British-based team in that sense and in the way they want to play the game. I have been really impressed so far.

“This is the first year the club has had all French coaches. We had foreign coaches in the past but Jono Gibbes moved on at the end of last season [to Ulster Rugby] and they brought another Frenchman in.

“Everything is done in French, which is good. That was also a reason to join Clermont. When you come to France I wanted to do it properly and learn the language. It’s a good thing for me that there are a few English speakers around, but the club are very proactive. I get French lessons through the club and fined if I don’t go to them.”

Much of what Laidlaw offers is leadership and decision-making so the language barrier needs to be hurdled quickly if he is to offer Clermont the best of himself. He admits that he has been uncharacteristically quiet in warm-up matches because he isn’t yet confident of barking those orders in a foreign language although, he concedes, the rude words seem to stick a little quicker than the rest.

For a little guy who relies on speed of thought rather than speed of foot Laidlaw, has eked out every last iota of his potential and then some. He has done just about everything the game has to offer, including playing in three different leagues in three different countries.

He has 58 international caps to his name, Laidlaw led Scotland to within inches of a World Cup semi-final and, of course, he toured New Zealand with the British and Irish Lions.

England prop and occasional pantomime villain Joe Marler returned from the summer extravaganza insisting that that the only thing he had learned was how to drink. So, what did the Scot pick up on tour?

“I had good fun, to be honest,” Laidlaw concedes. “I was firmly in the midweek side so I had a little bit of that [learning to drink] as well at times.

“I think I learned that simple things go a long way in rugby. I have been a big believer of that my whole career and it was hammered home. If you defend aggressively, get your set-piece right and stay square in attack and run hard and fast, it goes a long way.

“I think there was a stat that came out, that the Lions were only in front for three minutes but we drew the Tests so it just shows, if you have a strong defence and do simple things well, you are going to be in games.”

Now that sounds like a plan that might just work.