SCOTLAND’S “Little General” Greig Laidlaw is one of a group of summer tour squad players to keep their places for Saturday’s opening Autumn Test match, and he believes that the team selected to face Japan will be more confident because of it.
Laidlaw was always expected to be picked, having been the stick-on scrum-half for the past year and finishing the summer tour as captain. He hands that responsibility back to Kelly Brown, with the back rower recovered from the ankle injury that sent him home early from South Africa, but remains a key leader within the squad.
However, the presence of Tim Swinson, ahead of Richie Gray, and Tommy Seymour on the wing, two players who made their debuts on tour, and others such as Edinburgh’s Nick de Luca, who Laidlaw believes are form choices left the Borderer wearing a satisfied smile.
“There’s a good feeling when you look through the team,” he said, “because most of the boys are on form at the minute, and that’s the exciting thing for me.
“In the past we’ve maybe not had such a big pool of players to pick from, but the reasonably successful stint of guys in the summer is showing in the team, as well as guys who have been holding good form, like Nick de Luca. He’s been playing absolutely brilliant for Edinburgh and I’m really looking forward to seeing him play this weekend.
“We were a bit disappointed with the summer tour, certainly with the first game against Samoa as we didn’t turn up that day and let everyone down. The second game against South Africa showed what we could do and shows it’s in there, and we won the game against Italy without playing brilliantly, but it’s important to win.
“But a couple of those boys [Seymour and Swinson] played well and their form has been good back at Glasgow, so it’s good to show that boys who play consistently well will be rewarded. That’s always good for players and their mindset, if they know that if they go out there and play well they are in with a genuine chance of holding their place, rather than the “perceived” bigger players coming straight back in.
“And it’s good for Scotland having someone like Richie [Gray] coming off the bench after settling well in France. That’s massive for us. I’m sure if Richie gets on he will be world-class as he usually is.”
Laidlaw is one of the most focused and astute players in the Scotland camp, but also has a dry sense of humour and, when asked whether there had been much impact from having Vern Cotter in camp this week – he will not take over as Scotland’s head coach next summer – he said: “Not really, we just exchanged pleasantries.
“But there’s always a bit of banter flying about, around who’s speaking to the new coach and what have you, but I’m sure Vern will have enough time to watch the Scotland games between now and when he takes over, and other games, to make up his own mind.
“Scott’s in charge. He’s head coach and everyone is aware of that, and what their position is, so it’s all just part of being professional.
“He ]Cotter] is obviously a professional guy as well and is in charge of one of the best teams in Europe, so I’m sure he’s got enough on his plate at the minute. He’s purely here to watch. That’s what we’ve been told. He’s here to get to know the players to make his transition easier when he does come.”
So, the gameplan remains that which Johnson has been developing through the RBS Six Nations and summer tour, with a pragmatic core of solid defence, challenging set-piece and tactical kicking, around which he is keen to see his players spread their wings.
But, while welcoming the change to the fixture card which pits the weaker of the three opponents up first, as opposed to featuring in the usual final autumn weekend, Laidlaw was quick to warn supporters against expecting Japan to roll over in the way a largely third-string side cobbled together with some amateurs did in the record 100-8 defeat of 2004.
“We’re certainly not taking them lightly. They conceded quite a few points against New Zealand at the weekend [in a 54-6 loss] but they still did a lot of good things in the game.
“We have traditionally started with a tougher game, so we have to make sure that we go on and win this game and get off to a good start, which will, hopefully, give us confidence going into the next two Tests against two of the top three sides in the world.
“I think it is better this way. Coming off the back of two tough Tests last year well… we all know what happened against Tonga.”
That lesson and an autumn whitewash is pretty fresh in the memory. A key theme this week remains, therefore, to wear the favourites tag with confidence but with a strong grip on their own game.
Laidlaw is at the heart of that, even with Brown back, and he is already working hard to espouse the message that any player who has a notion to play a bit loose on Saturday, in a way they would not dream of against the Springboks and Wallabies, will risk playing into the hands of the “Brave Blossoms”.
He knows that the one Japanese likely to make a fool of inaccurate Scots is his opposite number, Fumiaka Tanaka, who plays for the Highlanders in Super 15.
“I’ve never played against them,” he revealed, “so this is a new challenge, but one I’m looking forward to as are, I think, the people of Scotland with 30,000 tickets away for the game.
“But they will be coming here to get stuck into us, make no mistake about that. They are an ever-improving nation and we’ve [probably] got them in the World Cup pool, so it’s important for us to lay down a marker that we’re at home and we want to get a good win.
“You just accept it [favourites tag] and do the simple things well. We don’t have to move away from what we’re good at. If you start doing things that you don’t usually, then that’s when you find yourself in trouble.
“First and foremost, we have to get our defence right and make it hard for them to attack, and that’s where we’ll be looking to stamp our authority on the game this weekend in front of our home crowd.”
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