SCOTLAND captain Greig Laidlaw and flanker Alasdair Strokosch have revealed how much last year’s defeat by Wales still hurts – and how desperate they are to make amends when the teams meet again on Sunday.
Scotland lost 51-3 in the Millennium Stadium on the last day of the 2014 RBS Six Nations Championship in a match that was Scott Johnson’s last as head coach before giving way to Vern Cotter. Earlier this week members of the current squad suggested that game would be mentioned only briefly, but yesterday both Laidlaw and Strokosch insisted it would play a big part in their preparation for this weekend’s game at Murrayfield.
The Scots were a man down for roughly an hour in Cardiff after Stuart Hogg was sent off for a late tackle on Dan Biggar, but neither man tried to use the full-back’s dismissal as an excuse for one of the national team’s most dismal performances ever. Instead, Laidlaw talked of how “the jersey was humiliated” that day, while Strokosch called it “a big slap in the face”.
While much of the emphasis in training this week has been on ironing out some of the technical defects that were on display in Saturday’s 15-8 defeat by France, Laidlaw believes that last year’s loss to the Welsh can play a crucial role in spurring Scotland on to victory this time round. “The last time we were on the wrong end of a thumping in the Millennium Stadium and we can use that as an emotion, a driver, to make sure it never happens again, especially here at home,” the scrum-half said. “That emotion can get us over the line.
“As players it would be silly not to talk about that. It would be wrong not to use bad times in your career as learning points. If you never brought it up it would be silly not to use that emotion.
“I definitely think we will be bringing that up, because the jersey was humiliated that day. We need to get some pride back into it this weekend here at home. We’re 100 per cent set on putting on a big performance, and it will be a tough game as Wales will be hurting after their defeat and will want to get their championship back on track as do we.”
Strokosch began that match last March on the bench, but was called into action within ten minutes of kick-off after Kelly Brown was injured. Around ten minutes later Hogg became the third Scottish man to be sent off in a Test, following Scott Murray and Nathan Hines.
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Wales were already 10-3 ahead by that point, stretched their lead to 27-3 by the interval, and ended up with seven tries. It was their biggest win and Scotland’s record defeat in the Six Nations.
“That’s a big motivation this week,” Strokosch said when asked how much the defeat still hurt. “We got humiliated away and we had them swan diving over the line and singing to each other at the after-match meal.
“It’s a big insult, a big slap in the face, and it’s not something that’s going to happen again. Anything that could have gone wrong did go wrong.
“One player going off is not an excuse to lose 50 points. It’s a bit harder playing with 14, but it’s not 50 points harder.
“You can’t blame Hoggy for anything. . . . You can blame him for doing something stupid, but you can’t hold the result against him.
“It’s the worst defeat we’ve ever had. The manner in which we folded over . . . . The team didn’t do ourselves or the jersey justice. It was an embarrassing display to be a part of. It’s tough to describe,” the Perpignan forward continued when asked how a player feels after such a result. “You’re angry, upset, gutted, disappointed at the same time. Then you move on from that to looking for a chance to make up for it.”
He added, however, that no matter how well someone played in the following games, there would still inevitably be a bit of unfinished business until they got round to playing the same team again. “Yeah,” he said. “A big bit.”
Much has changed in the Scotland squad since then, of course, and it is all but inconceivable that a side coached by Cotter would lose in such a demoralising fashion. As well as the impact made by the new coach, Strokosch believes that the new generation of Scottish internationals have also made a difference.
“Vern is a strong character who pretty much inspires respect straight away from the first time you meet him. He shouts from time to time but only when he has to – usually when we do something wrong.
“It doesn’t happen often. If someone shouts all the time, it just becomes a noise. Vern is very, very quiet, very precise, but if you don’t do what he’s told you to, he’ll give you one chance and then he’ll make sure . . . .
“He’s different to speak to from how he looks. You would think he’d be a real stern, tough guy, but he’s actually very laid back and nice to speak to. He explains everything very well, very technically. He just expects the best out of us.
“Another positive is the young guys who have suddenly come into the squad. They’ve come in and they’ve not been timid, they’ve not been shy, it’s like they’ve been international rugby players for a long time. They’re full of confidence, but they should be.
“They’ve got humility at the same time. They bring a lot of energy and a lot of pace to how we’re going to play the game. It’s really fun to be part of.”
Given the events of last year, there will be a lot of attention – and pressure – on Hogg at the weekend. But, after a display against France in which the full-back was close to his best, particularly in the counter-attack, Laidlaw is confident that his team-mate will have no ghost to exorcise on Sunday.
“You’ve seen from his performance at the weekend he’s a brilliant rugby player. He has all the skills, all the talent. He just needs to harness that in the right direction exactly as he did against France.
“What’s gone is gone. Nobody can change what has happened. Hoggy just needs to let it go and everybody has to just forget about it. He has to move forward. I’ll be encouraging Hoggy to play the way he did against France and if he steps up to the plate we will have a chance to win.” Although it would be reasonable to presume that Hogg, perhaps more than any other member of the home team, will be a driven character on Sunday, Laidlaw thinks the Glasgow back will be no more or less motivated for the Wales game than he is for any other international. That is to say, Hogg is always desperate to perform, and to get the better of the opposition no matter who they are.
“I think Hoggy has personal drive for every game. He’s that kind of character – and that’s the kind of character we need: someone who steps up, who wants the ball in his hands, who wants to play, who never ducks away from anything. We need 15 boys like that this weekend.”