Greig Laidlaw not fazed by loss of Scotland leaders for France duel

Greig Laidlaw will be missing some of his most trusted lieutenants when he leads Scotland into battle at the Stade de France this afternoon but insists he won’t be feeling a lonely and isolated general.
Jonny Gray in possession as the Scotland squad are put through their paces at Stade de France. Picture: David Gibson/Fotosport/REX/ShutterstockJonny Gray in possession as the Scotland squad are put through their paces at Stade de France. Picture: David Gibson/Fotosport/REX/Shutterstock
Jonny Gray in possession as the Scotland squad are put through their paces at Stade de France. Picture: David Gibson/Fotosport/REX/Shutterstock

The skipper believes he has enough experience and forceful personalities around him to ensure that the Scots don’t freeze in the Paris cauldron.

“Yeah, we had a recruitment meeting on Monday night there…” joked Laidlaw of what is now a decimated leadership group with the likes of Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and Ryan Wilson all going down injured.

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“No, it’s good that we have more leaders, naturally, within the group these days,” continued the captain.

“Whether that be boys coming through from Edinburgh, guys like Grant Gilchrist, Stuart McInally. And there are the Glasgow boys like Fraser Brown and Jonny Gray. Sean Maitland as well, who has a lot of experience down at Sarries.

“So the group has a lot of leaders – and I’ve spoken to them at length this week about making sure we’re connecting, delivering the right message but also doing our own jobs and leading by example. That’s the most important thing.”

France have rolled the dice and gone with youth for their half-back pairing and, despite playing the last couple of seasons at Clermont Auvergne, the Toulouse duo of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack is so fresh that even Laidlaw, pictured right, is not entirely sure what to expect. “I’ve not played against them too much but I’ve watched quite a lot of them in the top 14 this season,” said the scrum-half who will win his 69th cap today and needs just one successful kick to pass Gavin Hastings and become the nation’s second highest points scorer.

“Ntamack has played a lot at 12 for Toulouse and Dupont has been one of the form nines in the competition. But I’ve not come across them as a combination, not seen them very much together. So we want to put massive pressure on them – and see how they come out the other side of that.”

Laidlaw knows enough of French rugby culture now not to be surprised by coach Jacques Brunel’s selection in the key battleground of youngsters with just 13 caps between them.

“Sometimes France change things up and they’ve chosen to do that this week,” he said. “It’s up to us to combat that and try to find an access into the game, whether that be by putting pressure on them – or somewhere else in the team. We’re looking forward to that challenge.”

Scotland have been forced into changes of their own, with an all-Glasgow midfield of Peter Horne at stand-off and centres Sam Johnson and Nick Grigg outside him, but Laidlaw said he had been happy with how the combinations have been gelling in training.

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“The fact that they’ve got a relationship from their days at Glasgow is helping Peter massively,” said Laidlaw. “Hopefully I can help them from the inside and my experience can take some pressure off them. Nick Grigg is looking forward to playing and he’s a dangerous runner going forward. So we’ve trained well and, ultimately, we need to go and execute the plan for 80 minutes.”

Scotland assistant coach Mike Blair said that the coaching staff have analysed France with a fine tooth comb but accepted there was an air of unpredictability around Les Bleus at the moment.

“With international rugby you get a lot of time to study the opposition. But our focus has to be on ourselves,” said the skills coach.

“We will look at who we are playing and potential ways to exploit them but if you can execute your own game on the pitch then that will only enhance your chances.

“It can be tricky to analyse,
especially with young guys coming into their side. Dupont, Ntamack and [full-back Thomas] Ramos are all excellent attacking players.

“They play with a lot of flair and there is a lot of individual talent in there. If we give them time and space then they will do a lot of damage to us. We need to put pressure on the half-backs and don’t allow them to run the show. ”

Blair didn’t enjoy the best of times at this venue – “I played at a difficult time for the Scotland team,” he lamented – but is sure those Scotland players getting their first taste of the Stade de France will relish it.

“I don’t think the guys who haven’t been here before will be overawed by it,” he said. “They’ll see the sun shining, recognise the fact it’s a beautiful pitch and a great place to go and play some rugby.

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“They’ll be desperate to show what they can do with a fast pitch. I don’t think there is a fear there. Our defence needs to be on its toes. We can’t allow them to get into the game, or allow the fans to get into the game. If we can manage that it will be a tough afternoon for them, if we don’t then they will enjoy themselves.”