IF EVER Scotland needed a shrewd rugby brain and a lion-sized heart it is now as they prepare to face South Africa in an historic first Test match in the Springbok head coach’s home town with an expected 40,000 passionate Bokke fans roaring their side on at the new Mbombela Stadium.
So, step forward Greig Laidlaw. The 27-year-old scrum-half, who came to Test rugby relatively late, typifies the canny Scottish ability to make the most of oneself. So it was no surprise this week when Scotland interim coach Scott Johnson turned to the son of Jedburgh to lead the team in Kelly Brown’s absence.
Having filled in at stand-off for Edinburgh so astutely, Laidlaw was asked to take on the role for Scotland through his first full season of Test rugby which culminated in victory over Australia, Fiji and Samoa this time last year.
But, now back in his familiar scrum-half berth, and, intriguingly, up against one other similarly versatile internationalist in Ruan Pienaar, Laidlaw has been asked to take on the captaincy on the occasion of his 20th cap and inspire Scotland, if not to an historic first Test win against the Springboks in South Africa, then to at least a restoration of pride following the Samoans’ revenge win last weekend.
“It’s a great honour, for me and my family,” said Laidlaw, “and I am very excited and just looking forward now to getting out on the field on Saturday and, hopefully, getting a win for Scotland. My thoughts go to Kelly, though. We didn’t want to lose him as he is one of our best players, but it’s up to us now to get on with it and make him proud as well.” Johnson said that he had thought long and hard about who would replace Brown as skipper but the fact that Laidlaw was handed the responsibility at half-time in Durban, after Brown had been forced off with an ankle injury, suggested that he was always the likely candidate.
Blindside flanker Alasdair Strokosch is the vice-captain, another easy choice one assumes, after he came out on top as Scotland’s most effective player against the Samoans.
“I did think about it because I don’t like callers in the team to be captains,” said the coach. “I like the floor not being dominated by one voice, and I like quieter captains, and Greig mixes that but, where we are now as a team, it’s a nice changeover. Strok brings his own level of maturity too so it’s a nice balancing act, but I just want Greig to play his game and I’m happy; he’s a great, true professional.”
As for how Laidlaw will lead the side, the scrum-half insisted that players should not expect him to suddenly start barking at them from the minute they arrive at the ground.
Asked about his style, Laidlaw said: “I am a bit more laid back about it. It is up to individuals to get themselves up for games and I am sure the boys will be ready to do that this weekend.
“Whether I am captain or not the position I am in I have to speak a lot and direct traffic and steer the team around the field, so you will hear and see the same sort of things from me this weekend.
“We’re all desperate to get a win and get the tour started. We let ourselves down and we let Scotland down last weekend. But the only thing we can do now is look forward and make sure we get a win over South Africa.”