A man who has captained and led his country in the sometimes brutal arena of Test rugby for a record 39 times in 76 caps, the 34-year-old announced yesterday that his time in a Scotland jersey was over.
It didn’t come as a surprise. In the last couple of weeks veteran flanker John Barclay and wing Tommy Seymour revealed their decisions as a changing of the guard unfolds for the Scotland team in the wake of that dispiriting pool-stage exit from the World Cup in Japan.
“Emotionally, this decision was incredibly tough. However, when I reflected on what I have learned from playing Test-level rugby and where Scotland is as a national team, it makes sense,” said the scrum-half who has enjoyed a glittering career which has taken him from his local club Jed-Forest to Edinburgh, Gloucester and now Clermont Auvergne in France.
It is those many times in a Scotland jersey that have meant the most to him, though, and he admitted it was a difficult decision to make.
“Captaining your country to victory is the stuff of childhood dreams. To say I will never again stand in the tunnel, filled with nerves, alongside my rugby family and lead my team-mates out on to the pitch at BT Murrayfield is incredibly hard,” said Laidlaw.
“While my body and heart could continue playing, my head tells me that it’s time to let the team rebuild. In terms of where Scotland are now, they are in a position to spring forward and I cannot wait to give them my full support from the stands.”
The retirement of Laidlaw heralds a new era for the Scotland national team as it looks to heal the wounds of a bruising World Cup experience and build towards a Six Nations which lies just around the corner with a daunting trip to face Ireland in Dublin on 1 February.
Younger, quicker and more attacking scrum-halves – such as Ali Price and George Horne – must now take on the mantle of the No 9 jersey which has always been a source of pride for Scotland. Wales may have their outside-half [stand-off] factory but this neck of the woods has always punched well above its weight when it comes to scrum-half.
Laidlaw’s hometown of Jedburgh has been one of the primary mines for talent in that position. His uncle, Roy Laidlaw, is one of the greats and fellow Jed man Gary Armstrong also goes down in the book of legend as “the hardest player I’ve ever seen” according to former Scotland boss Jim Telfer.
Laidlaw, who also played a good deal of his career at stand-off, has not been without his critics. A slower, calmer, more considered player from the traditional old school, some deemed him unsuited for the modern Test rugby stage.
Few could doubt his impeccable game management, though, and magnificent goalkicking ability which took him to a Scottish second highest points total of 714, behind Chris Paterson’s 809 and ahead of Gavin Hastings’ 667. He also won a place on the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand in 2017.
We may wish it otherwise, but Scotland tend to lose more big rugby games than they win. It was ever thus, and the captain’s role does take a mighty toll, as Stuart McInally articulated this week.
Laidlaw stepped in to replace McInally as Scotland skipper for what will go down as his 76th and final cap in that momentous, but ultimately crushing, 28-21 loss to Japan in Yokohama, which brought Scotland’s World Cup to an end.
Laidlaw said: “To the Scotland coaches and backroom staff over the years who dedicate hours behind the scenes to prepare the team collectively and as individuals, I thank you.
“To the people who have helped me achieve my dreams, my team-mates, my parents, sister, family, close friends and my incredible wife, Rachel, and our sons, I will be forever thankful for all the support you have shown me over the years. You have stuck by me through thick and thin.
“I’d also like to thank Scottish Rugby and the staff behind the scenes who have both supported me as captain and as player and enabled the team to perform in front of capacity crowds. And finally, a massive thanks to the Scotland supporters both in Scotland and abroad for sharing the rollercoaster ride of international rugby with me. Your support was always appreciated, from messages on social media to being at the stadium, or just stopping to chat on the street. I look forward to supporting the team alongside you all at BT Murrayfield soon. Alba gu bràth.”
His last cap, and time as skipper, may have ended in a World Cup defeat and failure, but for this writer the abiding memory of Laidlaw’s Scotland journey will be that afternoon at Newcastle’s St James’ Park in 2015 when he almost single-handedly dragged his team over the line against Samoa and got his country into a World Cup quarter-final against Australia which will never be forgotten.