TWO different players from different eras, yet the similarities in the careers of two Laidlaws from Jedburgh are remarkable and as the younger, Greig, takes hold of the No 9 jersey for the first time this weekend his Uncle Roy believes he has what it takes to emulate his achievements.
Greig has grown up fascinated by his uncle’s career, even though Roy always needed pushing to discuss the tries he scored against Ireland and England. Roy scored six of his seven Test tries in 47 Scotland Tests against Ireland, but the one against the English at Twickenham in 1983 remains among the greatest highlights. It was a crucial score in the 22-12 victory, and has only become more revered as a fine moment in Scottish rugby history with the failure of Scotland to win again on that patch of London grass.
In 1983 John Beattie and Roy Laidlaw wore shirts 8 and 9, and on Saturday Johnnie Beattie and Greig Laidlaw will fill the jerseys. That forward-backs link is a key change in new coach Scott Johnson’s bid to uncover a fresh threat to Scotland’s attack.
Laidlaw is delighted to be at scrum-half but feels confident that he can help Scotland surprise their hosts on Saturday as a result of his time at stand-off. He said: “I’m happy to be back there, there’s no getting away from that and I’m really looking forward to the game on Saturday. I enjoyed playing ten and it has improved me as a nine, and my understanding of what takes pressure off a stand-off more. Hopefully it has made me a better all-rounder.
“But I’ve played most of my rugby there [at scrum-half] and am genuinely most comfortable there. I’m not the biggest guy in the world so I won’t be getting bowled over every couple of minutes. I might be out the firing line just slightly and it will hopefully free me up a little, and I’ll enjoy that.”
There are differences in styles but similarities in the way both came through later in their careers, Greig making his Test debut at 25 and Roy 26. They share a fighting spirit developed in the rugby world around Jedburgh, and both are great examples of players who have worked hard on basic skills to turn themselves from good players into Test-quality performers.
“I’d agree with that,” said Roy. “Greig is a very good rugby player, a good leader who’s made the most of himself. He’s worked hard to become a reliable goal-kicker and he can play nine and ten very effectively. But, as he says, he’s not big and so when he was playing at ten teams targeted him, sending in the heavy runners, and that made life difficult for him. Size-wise he is a scrum-half but a lot of the things he did at stand-off, and the influence he brings to a game, he can still do at nine.
“We’ve had some very good scrum-halves, and struggled for stand-offs, so I can see why they picked him there, because he is very good at running the game and as an attacking player he can bring people into the game, because he has a strong rugby brain. But we need to see Ruaridh [Jackson] and the other stand-offs upping their game. Ruaridh is doing that now and showing a bit more confidence, and hopefully we can see him play closer to the gain-line at Twickenham and putting their defence under real pressure.”
With Mike Blair having retired and Chris Cusiter injured, Laidlaw has the opportunity he has dreamt of since he was a child – to follow his uncle Roy and make the Scotland No 9 jersey his own. Roy was at Greig’s house earlier in the week, fixing plugs for his nephew now that he is back working as an electrician after a stint developing the SRU’s coaching pathways that ultimately pushed him nearer coaching than he wished to be.
He will rejoin most of the 1983 squad at London Scottish’s Richmond home on Saturday after their skipper Jim Aitken sent out a call for a reunion 30 years on from that Twickenham win. He is excited by the prospect of reliving the stories of that day and many others, and perhaps taking his head out of the frustrations he has with the modern-day game.
“I’ll always love the game,” he insists, “but the modern players just look a bit more restricted, a bit wooden, to me. It feels like players of my era grew up in a more natural environment, and the irony is that you need natural ball players more than ever the way the game is now. You look at Fiji and New Zealand, and those players develop a lot of their skills more naturally, earlier on, before they learn the structures. And under pressure in big games you fall back on that natural ability, and I think that’s where we’re struggling a bit right now.
“We lack the finances and we don’t have the right structure to develop the talent that we do have. The role of the club has changed and we have lost the vital stepping stones from the bottom to the test stage.
“I see good players everywhere in Scotland but can they make the next step? The next step at the moment is too big for many boys and that’s why we are struggling at pro and international level.
“I’ll go to my grave saying that we have to bring back district rugby, as a stepping stone between the club game and the pro and international now. You learn there to adapt quickly, because you don’t have the same time to prepare. Some players who look ordinary respond well to it and get better and better as they step up, while some who look good at club level fall off because they don’t have the mental strength to deal with those challenges. It teaches players to think more on their feet.
“With the structure we have now we’re not finding that out until they are playing in the Heineken Cup or for Scotland, and that’s not good enough.”
Roy still thinks a lot about rugby. Like many players of his generation he is baffled by much of what he watches, and at times turned off. But the progress of Greig has fired his excitement again and the youngster admits that knowing Roy and the 1983 squad will be there on Saturday, urging them on, brings an extra lift.
“We’ve had a few chats about that day,” said Greig. “That’s their piece of history and it was a fantastic team back in those days, and hopefully we can make their weekend that little bit better.
“The game has changed and my uncle Roy understands that, but he probably doesn’t realise the influence he can still have on myself by speaking about times gone by. The game has changed but it’s still Scotland v England at the highest level and one day he played at that level so, of course, I still take things from him.
“The main point I’ve taken this week is that they went down there and believed in themselves, and that’s exactly what we have to do. They had good players, as I feel we do, and England had a good team at the time as they have now.
“It can be done; of course it can. That’s the main thing I’ve taken from him – belief in yourself and your team-mates. If we do that we’ll give ourselves the best possible chance.”