THOSE players left disappointed by exclusion from Scotland coach Vern Cotter’s squad and still young enough to contemplate a crack at Japan 2019 need only look to Greig Laidlaw to see how much can change in four years.
Back in 2011 he was devastated when he was left out of Andy Robinson’s group that travelled to New Zealand, with Mike Blair, Chris Cusiter and Rory Lawson taking the scrum-half berths. Yesterday, Laidlaw was beaming with pride as he faced the public and the media as Scotland captain for this year’s tournament in England, which starts later this month.
“It was a feeling of disappointment,” said Laidlaw at Edinburgh University yesterday when asked about that previous experience. “I was in the position of some of the boys this time round. You do all the training and stuff, but Vern can only pick 31 players. It was 30 last time and they picked what they thought was the best 30 in Scotland. Now, Vern has picked the 31 he feels can do the best job for the country.
“It’s tough for the coaches and it’s tough for the players, but you know all along that the coaches have to make that decision at some point and so you go about your work and try and stick your hand up when you’re given opportunities.
“Let’s be honest about it, it’s tough – the players put a lot of time and commitment in behind the scenes but Vern can only pick 31, which he’s done on his experience and on the boys that he thinks can do the best job in that pool.”
The 29-year-old said that thoughts of making amends by making sure of his place at the next World Cup were not immediately formed. “Four years is a long time,” he said. “I didn’t really think about it. I got on with my business trying to play well for my club and then hope to get selected for my country. I didn’t think about 2015 too quickly, but I’m absolutely delighted to be here this time around.”
Laidlaw, who has skippered in 16 of his 40 caps – the last occasion being Saturday’s 48-7 win over Italy – now follows his uncle Roy, who played in the inaugural 1987 tournament, and also in the footsteps of another Jed scrum-half, Gary Armstrong, who in 1999 also captained his country at a World Cup.
“I’m delighted and I am looking forward to the challenge,” said Laidlaw. “But we will need the whole group of players – the boys who start, the boys who come on. We need leaders throughout the field in a tough environment like the World Cup.”
When asked if he felt he had grown into the leadership role, Laidlaw replied: “Yes, absolutely. Vern has helped me as well. We have developed the leaders’ group within the squad which has also helped me. I think you could see that over the last few weeks.
“In the Ireland game I thought the boys played very well and we did very well to get the win in Turin without a great performance. I really felt we played well at the weekend, but we’re not the finished article by any stretch of the imagination. It is up to the leadership group to make sure the players understand that.”
Cotter said that Laidlaw was the squad captain for the tournament, but said others could take on the role in the event of substitutions, team rotation and injury. He mentioned Henry Pyrgos and Grant Gilchrist, who have had a taste of captaincy in the last few weeks, and also the not yet eligible Josh Strauss, who has led Glasgow Warriors on numerous occasions.
The form of Pyrgos at Glasgow and Edinburgh’s Sam Hidalgo-Clyne means there is, as has so often been the case down the years, a healthy competition for the Scotland No 9 jersey, something which cost Laidlaw four years ago. This year he has relished the rivalry.
“They’ve been playing very well but I’m not doubly pleased to be captain because that never cements your place in the team. With Vern you can’t just turn up and go through the motions, you need to be playing well. But it has helped me; to have players playing well beneath you makes you realise that you need to raise your game.”
Laidlaw endured the disappointment of captaining Scotland during the Wooden Spoon whitewash of this year’s Six Nations, but believes lessons have been learned.
“Error count is one,” he said. “Without the Ireland game I think we were beaten by an average of four points in the other four games so it was little things. One error in 80 minutes can cost you. This time we have talked about having no dead moments, not concentrating on the field at any time regardless of what is happening. We have to be switched on. Part of the captain’s job is taking decisions and helping to guide the players.
“I think if the boys can take pressure off the captain that helps a lot. We have a good mix now throughout the team. Finn [Russell] is young but he shows a lot of experience in the way he plays the game. Fordy [Ross Ford] became Scotland’s most capped forward at the weekend. I will be looking to these boys going into the World Cup.”
Now Laidlaw will head with the squad to Paris for this weekend’s final warm-up against France, but he couldn’t help looking forward to the prospect of leading Scotland out at his new club home of Gloucester in the first World Cup match against Japan.
Laidlaw, who moved from Edinburgh to Kingsholm last summer and helped them win the European Challenge Cup, said: “I’ll try and get the boys in The Shed onside – obviously the fact that Japan play in cherry and white isn’t ideal but I’ll try and convert as many as I can, and we’ll get a couple of Scotland flags chucked in there.”