Greig Laidlaw retires as one of Scotland's greatest 9s - like many Borderers before him
He was as astute and reliable scrum-half as Scotland has ever had, one capable also of playing international rugby effectively at fly-half, and was a very good goal kicker. There were always complaints from some Scottish fans that he was too slow and deliberate at 9. His half-back partners are unlikely to have agreed, being happy that he almost never shipped on bad ball to them. Instead he took the responsibility of dealing with it.
Scotland has almost always been well-served at scrum-half, and it would be futile, and rather silly, to attempt to draw up a ranking list of those who have worn the number 9 jersey. Suffice to say that Greig Laidlaw was one of the best, also one of the few to have been a regular goal-kicker; indeed Dougie Morgan of Stewarts-Melville who captained Scotland in the 1970s is the only other goal-kicking Scotland 9 to come immediately to mind.
Greig was born in Jedburgh into a rugby family, his Uncle Roy having been a star of the eighties, his half-back partnership with John Rutherford being ever-memorable. A Lion in 1983, Roy was a Grand Slam winner the following season. A disproportionate number of our international fly-halves have come from the Border League clubs, and it is remarkable that our other Grand Slam winning scrum-half, Gary Armstrong, also hailed from Jed. What are the odds against a wee town (population less than 3000) producing such a rich crop? I suppose there may be a village in the Welsh valleys or a small town in the south-west of France that may make a similar boast, but I hae my doots.
We have of course had fine scrum-halves who didn’t hail from the Borders, quite a long list indeed, and indeed Greig Laidlaw as a Borderer is the exception this century. Nevertheless the list of 9s from the Border League clubs in my lifetime is impressive. Arthur Dorward, Brian Shillinglaw, Duncan Paterson from Gala. Eck Hastie and Bryan Redpath from Melrose. Then Gordon Hunter from my own club, Selkirk. Gordon won only four caps but he sat on the bench understudying Roy Laidlaw for four or five years. That was in the days when replacements were permitted only for injured players, not at will as now. Otherwise he would have had, twenty or thirty caps.
Strangely, some may think with good reason, Hawick the outstanding Borders team of my time, has been ill represented at 9, only Greig Oliver getting a small handful of caps in the internim between Roy Laidlaw and Gary Armstrong.
It is true that a couple of Hawick 9s went off to Rugby League, but I have always thought that selectors looked at the Hawick scrum-half and muttered “fine player but he has it easy behind the Green Machine that usually supplies him with good ball, served on a plate as it were, all afternoon. It’s different playing for Scotland. Then you want a scrum-half with lots of experience of adversity.”
Well, Greig Laidlaw got his first cap in 2010 when he came on as a replacement for Mike Blair against New Zealand. Only Richie Gray, then aged only nineteen, of that team is still playing. It was hardly a happy start, adversity indeed. The All Blacks, captained by Richie McCaw and with Dan Carter at fly-half, won 49-3. Scotland’s coach Andy Robinson said “we let the nation down”. Not, I think, a judgement that could ever have been reasonably directed at Greig Laidlaw as an individual then or indeed ever in his playing career. He may rarely have been the most exciting of players, but few who have played for Scotland have had better judgement or made fewer mistakes. Speaking of the great back-row player David Leslie, Jim Telfer once told me he could relax when Leslie was in possession because he knew he would do the right thing. You could have said the same of Greig Laidlaw at any time in his long and distinguished career and I bet that, now that he has hung his boots up, he will be an outstanding coach.
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