THE captaincy may have fallen into his lap by accident, literally so following Grant Gilchrist’s broken arm, but it is somehow appropriate that Greig Laidlaw is leading Scotland into the Stade de France bear pit on Saturday evening in Paris.
This is the land where playmakers wear the No 9 rather than the 10 on their backs. France produced the original petit general Jacques Fouroux and plenty of others, built along similar lines, followed in his footsteps: Jean Baptiste Ellisalde, Freddie Michalak and Morgan Parra to name just three.
All three Frenchmen are (or were) the tactical brains directing the forward brawn just as Laidlaw does for Scotland and, like the Scot, all three Frenchmen are (or were) equally adept in either halfback shirt and all of them are (or were) pretty handy off the tee.
They are small men playing a big man’s game so they have to bring something special to the party. Up to recently Laidlaw has brought leadership, tactical awareness and deadly accuracy with the boot, alongside the traditional scrum-half virtues of passing and kicking, but last November we saw another side to the little man.
In the opening match against Argentina, Laidlaw’s quick thinking and quick feet earned two tries, for Sean Maitland and Stuart Hogg. Had the Scotland skipper not made an uncharacteristic handling error he might have got one himself against Tonga; dropping the ball after the red sea of shirts parted following a cunning lineout ploy. It was almost as if he had stolen the best parts of Chris Cusiter’s running game and somehow spliced them into his own DNA to produce a Frankenstein monster mash scrum-half – tactical aptitude and running threat all rolled into one complete player.
“I think it was a culmination of the way we played when we were starting to open up more gaps and speed we were playing at,” says Laidlaw by way of explanation. “I just felt really fresh going into the autumn games, as I do now. My performances with Gloucester were good and that has driven me on as a player. The Argentina game went well for me and hopefully the Six Nations will pan out well for me and, more importantly, the squad.
“The time was right for me to move [to Gloucester] and it’s just freshening up. You go away somewhere else and you feel you need to prove yourself, so the timing was perfect. I’ve been happy with my form and I now need to push on again in the Six Nations. It was just a new environment, playing with new players, new ideas, new coaches. It’s great for a player to move when the time is right.”
Laidlaw will need to be at his best on Saturday because the bare statistics show that Scotland have yet to record a Six Nations victory in Paris.
The last win came at the conclusion of the old Five Nations Championship, which Scotland won after a final round match in the Stade de France that may rank as the most complete Scottish performance of the professional era. Five first-half tries were run in and, in what may be a good omen for Saturday’s result, the scrum-half that day was another product of Jed-Forest RFC.
Jim Telfer referred to Gary Armstrong as the bravest man he’d witnessed in a Scotland shirt so Laidlaw has plenty to live up to and there is no doubting the impact of the Grand Slam hero, one of only two players who won the old championship in 1990 and in 1999 (Paul Burnell the other), on the man who has current custody of the national No 9 shirt.
“I remember watching it [the 1999 Paris match] on television” Laidlaw recalls. “It was a great day for Scotland. It was a very Scottish performance that day, with pace, good rucking and they moved the ball quickly. If we are to win we will have to emulate that this weekend.
“He [Armstrong] had a huge influence. Gary was a great player and he is also a great man. It was brilliant for me to see someone like him from a small town, where I grew up as well.
“He was a big part of that team and he was a great leader. It was a team performance in Paris that day and we will need a team performance again if we are going to get across the line.”
Any excess luggage when Scotland travel away from Murrayfield in the Six Nations is usually filled with hope rather than expectation but this team are buoyed by the autumn results and, if the set-piece can stand up to the most intense scrutiny, they have a puncher’s chance.
Players always talk about controlling the controllables but one aspect that is way beyond anyone’s ken is the raw emotional atmosphere inside the stadium on Saturday.
The French team may well reflect the French nation as a whole and pull tighter together following the appalling Charlie Hebdo murders.
“I think it will be emotionally charged with the things that have been happening in Paris,” says Laidlaw. “The French have been talking about uniting the nation, singing the national anthem and things like that, but we can’t get caught up in those things.
“The start of the game is going to be very important.”
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