IF YOU you look back to recent times – when Scotland have had strong, winning teams (a bit less recent than we’d like truth be told) – a settled and symbiotic half-back partnership has always been a key factor.
Laidlaw-Rutherford remains the idealised benchmark for many, although Armstrong-Chalmers and Armstrong-Townsend both tripped off the tongue nicely at the beginning and end of the 1990s. In recent months there has been tentative talk that the burgeoning partnership of Greig Laidlaw and Finn Russell could be the one that drives Scotland on to the long-awaited sunlit uplands, and the duo certainly did nothing to dampen such optimism in Gloucester yesterday afternoon.
Scotland’s slide to a Six Nations whitewash under Laidlaw’s captaincy, combined with eye-catching purple patches of form from his rival scrum-halves, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Henry Pyrgos, put pressure on the Jedburgh man’s place in the team, never mind leadership of it. But the 29-year-old has scarcely put a foot wrong since, leaving no-one in doubt who is boss, and backing that up with a masterful man-of-the-match display yesterday at the stadium he now calls home at club level. Outside him, Finn Russell marked his 23rd birthday with a near-faultless display, exploding into life as Japan tired and putting the icing on the cake with the fifth and final try in the ultimately highly satisfying 45-10 win over Japan that took Scotland to the top of Pool B.
When Laidlaw was confirmed as Scotland’s skipper for the tournament at the start of the month, he noted the fact that Japan’s cherry-and-white colours might endear them to fans in the west country town he now calls home. He joked that he would “get the boys in The Shed onside and throw a few Scotland flags in there”.
Of course, he couldn’t have predicted the scarcely believable twist of fate in Brighton at the weekend, when Japan humbled the mighty Springboks and became the darlings of the rugby, if not sporting, world. In the end, even in the unlikely event that Gloucester’s favourite son “Iron” Mike Teague had taken to the field prior to kick-off in full Highland dress and megaphone demanding the feisty inhabitants of the diehards’ chosen stand get behind Scotland, it would have fallen on deaf ears.
Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg, after an ugly spill of a no-pressure high ball, was given the kind of raucous “ee-aw, ee-aw” noise usually reserved for a blunder by some beastly brute from Bath, while Laidlaw even endured the unique experience of taking a goal-kick from The Shed touchline to a mild chorus of boos and whistles.
Not that any of it seemed to bother the scrum-half as he went about his business with the kind of composure and canniness we have come to expect. Both these attributes were tested during a nervy first 40 minutes when Japan tried to carry as much momentum as they could from their sensation in Sussex just four days previous. Laidlaw’s four penalties from five attempts gave the Scots an uneasy lead at half-time as the Brave Blossoms scored the only try and, if not quite at the level of Brighton, were the more energetic outfit and claimed the half’s only try from a perfect driving maul. That said, if Fumiaki Tanaka and Harumichi Tatekawa looked the more lively of the half-back pairings, it was Laidlaw and Russell who seemed more in control.
In the tight opening exchanges, Russell didn’t have much opportunity to showcase his flamboyant abilities and maybe that led to him over-reaching when he did get a sniff late in the half, trying the spectacular miss-pass to Tommy Seymour wide on the right when a more reined-in approach may have worked the opening more profitably. But Russell’s have-a-go mindset is the breath of fresh air we have been crying out for and there are growing signs that his gallusness is nicely complemented by the coolness of the “old head” inside him.
Laidlaw’s rugby intelligence came to the fore when he eschewed the numbers to his right for the obvious physical mismatch to his left, and put John Hardie in for the try which broke the Japanese resistance. As Scotland increasingly gained ascendancy in the forwards and the game generally, Laidlaw and Russell were able to cut loose and run rings around their tiring opponents. Russell was even able to attempt a little flip-pass tribute to his mentor, Gregor Townsend, before he jinked in for the perfect final flourish. Nine and ten – 9/10.