SCOTLAND do not have an embarrassment of riches in too many positions, but scrum-half is undoubtedly one – to the extent that there are three in Andy Robinson’s squad to play France tomorrow.
Mike Blair starts at No 9, Chris Cusiter is on the bench, and Greig Laidlaw, who joined Edinburgh as a scrum-half, is in the No 10 jersey.
It is not that long ago that, with Cusiter having been playing so well, that there was a lobby for Blair to switch to stand-off to enable Scotland to make the most of their half-back talent. Since then, however, Laidlaw has gained experience in the position, to the extent that Blair is now happy to concentrate on his duel with Cusiter for a starting berth at 9.
“The scrum-half position has been so competitive right since I started playing for Scotland,” Blair said. “I think when you are in a position that is so competitive you’ve got to be alive to any possibility. You’ve got to be alive to the fact that you might start the game, you might be on the bench and you might be asked to do different roles in the game. I wasn’t surprised [to be picked ahead of Cusiter]. I was pleased.
“I think there’s that slightly different balance between Chris and myself, as I’ve said over the years.
“We both bring different things to the party and I’m pleased to get the opportunity this time.”
With opportunity comes responsibility. Blair and Laidlaw are starting a championship match together for the first time, and the onus is firmly on them to make the most of the quality ball they get from the pack.
The forwards’ general display was one of the most encouraging aspects of Scotland’s first two matches, but Blair knows that on both occasions that good work was undone by mistakes.
“I guess the frustrating thing is that in the English game and the Welsh game there have been massive positives, but the mistakes in the negatives have been significant,” he said.
“Our massive positives won’t necessarily bring us points, whereas our negatives – which would maybe spring up once every 15 minutes – they’d end up getting a penalty or scoring a try or scoring two tries.
“So it’s that ability to absorb the negative stuff, I guess. You know there’s going to be negative stuff – a dropped ball or a pass that doesn’t go to hand, or whatever. But I think it’s absorbing that negativity and making the most of the positive stuff, and making sure that the positive stuff brings you firstly pressure and then the pressure brings the points afterwards.”
Laidlaw has just four caps to date, but his half-back partner has every faith in his ability. “Greig’s had experience at ten. He has played there before – it’s not like he’s just been thrown in.
“But I think the way he’s gone about it has been exceptional. He’s running a very good game at the moment and he’s got the respect of all the players around him.”
That respect will only increase if the half-backs mastermind a Scotland victory tomorrow. But, while Laidlaw is facing the French for the first time, Blair knows from first-hand experience how tough they are. He first played against them in 2003, and only once – three years later – has he ended up on the winning side. “You could say, well, they’ve not played in three weeks – and I think that’ll be a wee advantage for us – but I think they handle it a lot better than they possibly have in the past,” he said. “And especially with a new coach [Philippe Saint-Andre] in there I don’t think they’ll be holding back at all.
“France have really progressed. They’re World Cup finalists. It sometimes gets lost that they’re technically the second-best team in the world. They had a good solid start to the championship. They did miss that game two weeks ago, but they’ll be firing on all cylinders.”
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Tuesday 18 June 2013
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