Greig Laidlaw knows that he is entering twilight of his playing career, but anyone who suspected that the 33-year-old would slide quietly away after he was dropped to the bench for the final two games of last season’s Six Nations campaign has clearly not been paying attention.
The Borderer has made a career out of proving wrong those so preoccupied by perceived weaknesses in his game that they overlook the tremendous value he adds to any team he plays in. Laidlaw is always at his best when he is being written off.
Scotland finished the Six Nations on a strange sort of high, battling back from 31-7 down at half-time against England to snatch a 31-38 lead, before a late George Ford try levelled it. Both teams were left scratching their heads and wondering whether they should laugh or cry.
In the final analysis, that crazy Calcutta Cup clash must be viewed as a positive for Scotland as they look to build towards the World Cup.
It was, after all, the first time the team had come away from Twickenham with anything other than a bloody nose in 30 years, and a remarkable result given how catastrophic things were looking after England had raced into a 31-0 lead after half an hour.
Speaking immediately after the game, Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend, pictured right, gave an insight into Laidlaw’s enduring influence on the team, regardless of whether he is starting as captain or relegated to the bench.
“Greig at half-time was excellent,” he said. “He has been excellent all week as one of our leaders who was not in the starting team. He spoke to Ali [Price] and Finn [Russell] at half-time and he was a calming influence on the backs. It’s tough when you’re 30 points down. It’s tough to get back into the process of working out how to get some respect back. Greig was very calm.”
Since then, Laidlaw has helped guide Clermont to the French Top 14 final, and kicked five from five to keep his team in that title match before they eventually went down 24-18 to Toulouse.
So, there is compelling evidence in his recent exploits to reinforce the belief that he can still add value to Scotland’s World Cup campaign – and not just as a squad member but as a central component of Townsend’s team.
“Without a shadow of a doubt I feel I can win the shirt back,” he states, emphatically, when asked about the role he plans to have during the upcoming World Cup campaign. “I’ll fight to the death for my jersey, I’ll fight tooth and nail for it if I have to. I won’t be shying away from that.
“Ali [Price] is playing really well, George [Horne] is coming through as a young scrum-half.
“I think I add value to the group and you probably saw that in the latter stages in the game down in England.
“I still feel I’ve got a lot to give to the jersey and the group, and I look forward to the challenge that lies ahead.”
There is a perception that Laidlaw lacks the zip of Price and Horne when it comes to getting Scotland’s high-tempo game into gear. It is an analysis the older man has never openly accepted, but rather than concern himself about something he has no control over, he chooses to highlight the areas where he undoubtedly has an edge over his younger, more impetuous rivals.
“That’s always been there, and it always will be,” he shrugs. “It doesn’t bother me. I just worry about myself. My team-mates know what I’m about and there’s no stronger thing than that.
“He [Horne] is fast and he’s an excellent rugby player who has played well for Glasgow. But I’m very fast in my top two inches and that’s somewhere you need to be fast.”
Deep down, Laidlaw knows his limitations, and it is to his credit that he has continually stepped out of his comfort zone (by moving from Edinburgh to Gloucester in 2014, and then moving to Clermont in 2017) in order to challenge himself into becoming a better player.
“You’re always trying to add stuff to your game, and, hopefully I’m a little bit stronger defensively,” he says. “That’s something I’ve worked hard on.
“Going down to France, I try to play quickly all the time. If the ball is quick, we’re good to go. You’re certainly always trying to develop that. And Gregor is big on his support lines from scrum-half, so that’s something new I’ve been trying to develop.
“It [France] has been excellent. You feel as though you’re playing in big games every week.
“That gives you a good mindset, so when you do go into massive games, you feel really prepared and you’re playing in front of massive crowds all the time.
“That’s really helped me. You can be more relaxed going into games, because you know you’ve got enough armoury in the tool box to go and win them.
“Underpinning it all is the way I see the game. My ability to control things, and goal-kicking, that’s all within my control. I’ve got to make sure I look after what I do well.”
Laidlaw makes no secret of the hurt he felt after Scotland were knocked out of the last World Cup at the quarter-final stage, when a contentious offside decision from referee Craig Joubert handed Australian stand-off Bernard Foley the opportunity to kick the game’s decisive points with just 30 seconds left on the clock.
“It’s big, of course it is – the last World Cup still burns away inside me and it always will, but we won’t get it back, so we’re trying to put our energy into this one, take our learnings from that game and that tournament into this one,” he says.
“It would obviously be good to be in a quarter-final again but at this stage we can’t look past the first game.
“We’ve got Ireland first up in a difficult pool, so we need to negotiate that first and then take it from there.”
And once the dust settles on the Japan adventure, will it be time to step aside and give the youngsters a chance to fight it out for top-dog status?
“I’ve not thought about it that much,” he replies, after a telling pause. “It’s about the team, about the jersey. I’ll make a decision after the World Cup, come what may.”