Greig Laidlaw: One big challenge left for Scotland

If a reminder was ever needed of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that sport can produce then the current situation of the Scotland rugby team is a classic example.

Greig Laidlaw in action against France.  Picture: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
Greig Laidlaw in action against France.  Picture: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
Greig Laidlaw in action against France. Picture: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Two weeks ago they were mired in their worst Six Nations run for 60 years but now, following wins over Italy and France, they find themselves on the cusp of their best series of results in the championship for 20 years.

The mind-blowing nature of the turnaround was not lost on skipper Greig Laidlaw yesterday but he said that he and his players knew that the dismal run of nine consecutive defeats in the competition had not been a fair reflection of their efforts and ability.

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“We felt we were that close,” said the scrum-half, who will lead his team out for a record 26th time against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday. “We were bitterly disappointed by how we played in the England game. In the Welsh game I thought we played fantastically well, so we really felt as a group we weren’t that far away.

“We were delighted to have won the last couple of games and to prove that to ourselves and to some other people as well. We’ve got one big challenge left, which is going to be tough. They’re the reigning champions, on their home patch, but we’ve got to play with confidence and if we play well we’re in with a chance to win the game.”

A year ago Ireland won the title at BT Murrayfield when they thumped Scotland 40-10 in comfortably the worst performance of head coach Vern Cotter’s tenure. The Scots had to slink away and leave the Irish players and fans to party in their manor, and Laidlaw admits it was a painful afternoon.

“Not good,” he said when asked about his memories. “It’s probably one of the hardest games I’ve had in my career in a Scotland top, in terms of the pressure we were under.

“Me being captain, I felt everything and we were well beaten that day.

“It was a tough game. Clearly we were on the back end of a tournament where we’d struggled for confidence and wins, while Ireland were chasing the championship. So it was a tough day.

“But, if you learn from experiences like that, you come out the other side as a better player and a better person. So we feel we’re in that place now and we need to use some of the feeling we had that day, to put it into our performance come the weekend.

“I probably couldn’t have imagined, at the time, that we could have turned things around in a year. You aren’t thinking that far ahead.

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“We’re in a good place but we want to be better, we want to go and win three games in the championship.

“It’s all about that. We want to finish on a positive note. It will be hard, because Ireland are a good side. But we’ll go there, do our thing and trust in our game.”

Laidlaw was speaking before the confirmation that lock Jonny Gray and No 8 David Denton had been ruled out of the match in Dublin. Stand-off Finn Russell continues to undergo concussion protocols but must be a serious doubt and the captain was effusive in his praise of Peter Horne, who stepped into the breach early on Sunday to replace Russell and produced a superb display in what isn’t his specialist position.

“I thought he was outstanding,” said Laidlaw. “Credit to him for coming on and adapting so well, because he hasn’t played a lot of his rugby at 10.

“It’s never good to see your playmaker go off, especially when you prepare all week on the basis that he’ll be there. So it was a blow to lose Finn.

“But Peter did brilliantly. He came in, he was calm, he stuck to the game plan – he had obviously done his work through the week – and it was all credit to him that he really just slotted into the team with no disruption to us at all.

“We all thought losing Finn was going to make things tough. But it says a lot about Peter that it didn’t really make a difference to us.”

Laidlaw would have no qualms about resuming the same half-back partnership this weekend.

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“Going on Sunday’s evidence, no, I wouldn’t be worried about him [Horne] starting there,” he said.

“He was energised, he was detailed in what he was doing on the field.

“I know we’ve got good options in that position now. That’s probably for the first time in years, that we’re starting to get options around the squad, be it at 10 or in the centre, wherever. It’s becoming a strong squad and you need that in international rugby. We’re starting to build depth for the first time in a while.”