Scotland success hinges on Greig Laidlaw link-up

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WHEN Gaelic broadcaster Hugh Dan Maclennan switched his focus with BBC ALBA to rugby he invented a name for the stand-off.

The rugby term did not exist in the gaelic language so Hugh Dan, a veteran rugby and shinty spectator, opted for the gaelic for “hinge”, because he felt it most appropriate. Greig Laidlaw is well used to being the hinge in the Scotland team after two years of flitting between scrum-half and stand-off. He became Scotland’s first-choice hinge through 2012 because the team needed go-forward and control in a way that no-one else seemed able to provide.

The Borderer is back in his familiar No 9 jersey now, with he and Scotland hoping that they might have uncovered a new contender to the role in Tom Heathcote, Laidlaw’s fourth fly-half partner in just 18 Test matches, but he is likely to remain the reliable hinge of the team as he helps the Inverness-born 21-year-old through his first international start.

“I probably will talk to him and work with him a little bit more with it being Tom’s first start,” Laidlaw acknowledged, “but he’s looked good in training and is a quality player, which is why he’s here.

“With [Greig] Tonksy in there, who has a left peg, we can share the kicking duties between the three of us.” Having played for Scotland at stand-off and suffered a fair share of mental and physical pain for the cause, Laidlaw is best placed to be able to guide a Test newcomer through a game in front of an expected 30,000 supporters and facing the intensity of a Samoan defence. He acknowledged that that spell one place out had given him a fresh appreciation of the demands of an international “hinge”.

“I do have an idea of what he will be going through,” he said. “Playing stand-off definitely gives me a much better understanding of the pressures a Test match brings to a stand-off. If the ball is slow I’ll probably not ship it to the ten so much as I might have in the past. I’ll take it on myself or use the forwards to regenerate. With slow ball, if you have a blitz defence coming at you, it is not a very fun place to be. I’ll also probably take more of the kicking duties on myself. If you are kicking off the back foot, that’s when you tend to get charge downs, and the stand-off is the one who gets the criticism when it maybe wasn’t his fault.” But, underlining the fact that even players with caps are not necessarily seasoned veterans, this is Laidlaw’s first visit to South Africa. He was due to be part of the Scotland Under-19s Junior World Championship campaign but was forced to have surgery on a serious knee injury instead.

He insisted that he loved the experience of new cities and stadia, and was already revelling in the unique colourful domination of rugby in the media and among supporters on the streets, but when it comes to Scottish rugby he is pleased to see something stay the same for the time being – the position of Scott Johnson as coach, with confirmation that Vern Cotter will not be joining up until next summer.

“I think Scott’s a really good coach and he’s done a good job for us. I want to repay him again with another Test win come the weekend. Obviously, Vern is coming in a year’s time, but that makes no difference to us. As players, we are working with the great coaching team at the moment, and when he comes Vern can only help.”

On a day off yesterday, Laidlaw was one of the players taken on a boat trip off the east coast of Durban for a (caged) dip into the sea with sharks, but he was pleased to see dry land and allow his face to regain its natural colour after a choppy return, and had quickly turned his mind to the plan to repeat the heroics of last summer’s tour, a three-Test success clinched by his penalty and conversions of tries by Joe Ansbro and Rob Harley in a last-gasp 17-16 victory in Samoa.

“That was a great experience. The last kick wasn’t difficult thankfully, but it was a team effort that got us there and it will need to be the same again here.

“The start on Saturday will be huge. We have to get our set-piece right, our defence right and hold on to the ball. We want to frustrate the Samoans because they like broken play; they have very good runners across the field and if we turn the ball over cheaply then that will stretch our defence.”

His partnership with Heathcote will be key, the “hinge” to Scotland’s ability to ask different questions across the expanse of King’s Park, of a Samoa team ranked three places higher in the world. But Laidlaw believes his new partner and the squad have the ability to claim another tour success.

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