ITALY’S last-gasp win in this year’s Six Nations was the kick-in-the-teeth moment that Scotland’s promising season never really recovered from.
Skipper Greig Laidlaw had been taken off with the home side 19-15 up and defending an Italian scrum assault in the left-hand corner as the clock ticked down.
I feel sharp, strong and fast. I’m just keen to get out there and playGreg Laidlaw
When Scotland won a penalty, the TV cameras showed the scrum-half fist pumping on the sidelines as victory seemed to have been assured. However, elation turned to despair minutes later when Peter Horne failed to find touch and the Italians manoeuvred their way to the Scottish line and milked the penalty try that secured a smash-and-grab win.
“No. We’ll never make up for that, unfortunately,” said Laidlaw when asked if wrapping up back-to-back victories over the Azzurri back at BT Murrayfield this Saturday would go some way to easing the pain of that loss.
The 29-year-old Gloucester player returns as captain this week, and while World Cup warm-ups can never avenge for a harrowing defeat in the heat of Six Nations battle, the man from Jedburgh accepted that finally getting a win after six, in the main narrow, losses on the bounce was an important breakthrough.
He expressed his hope that another this weekend will provide the momentum desperately needed going into next month’s tournament in England.
Speaking in St Andrews, where the squad are based this week, Laidlaw said: “Our performance last weekend was probably a bit scrappy from both teams, but we scored more points than them. In the Six Nations game, we probably slightly edged the performance, although it wasn’t great, but then they scored more points than us.
“So it’s important to win. It’s very important for us again this weekend to put in a big performance, especially the boys that are fresh – leading by example.
“Winning breeds confidence in the group and in the individual, so if we can go out again this weekend and win it would be two wins out of three. Going to France [for the final warm-up on 5 September] is always tough, but if we can pull something off out there we’ll take massive confidence from that.”
After being kept in cotton wool for the first two warm-up games, the former Edinburgh captain insisted that his leadership of the side this week was not a guarantee that he will do the same at his club’s Kingsholm Stadium when Scotland line up against Japan on 23 September.
“You shouldn’t presume anything,” he said. “I spoke to Vern [Cotter, the coach] throughout, so I know where I stand, basically. He’s given me the honour to be captain this weekend. If I just get out there, captain and play well, what will be will be.
“I’m not looking ahead – if I do I might take my eye off the performance this weekend. If I play well in the warm-up games everything else will take care of itself.
“I’m just happy where my game’s at, at the moment. Nobody’s guaranteed their place in the squad – there’s still a game of rugby to be played and won.
“I feel sharp, strong and fast. I’m just keen to get out there and play.
“It would be a huge honour if that is the case [captaining at the World Cup]. If not, life goes on. I’m just delighted I’ve been named captain this weekend.”
With Chris Cusiter not training with the squad it seems certain, barring injury, that the scrum-half triumvirate of Laidlaw, Henry Pyrgos and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne will be in Cotter’s final squad. Laidlaw said he had been impressed with the displays of his positional rivals in the first two warm-ups.
“They’re both good players,” he said. “Henry played well in Ireland, and captained the team well, and Sam had good elements of his game on the weekend.
“It was probably more difficult for Sammy in that it was tough up front for the forwards and sometimes the ruck ball was getting slowed up.
“That’s something I’ll be looking for this weekend – getting the ruck ball quick and getting on the front foot. It’s a lot easier for scrum-halves to play if that’s the case.
“It’s almost out of my hands, really. It’s up to the forwards – up to everybody really, because the collisions nowadays are across the field. If we can get quick ball out of every collision, then we’ll keep speeding the play and they can’t set their defence as quickly. It’s just a snowball from there.”
The cutting of seven players from the squad earlier in the week ahead of Tuesday’s announcement of the final 31-man party has added a fresh dynamic this week – focusing minds on the fact that the real business is fast approaching.
Laidlaw said: “It’s never nice to see, because you grow a bond with these players through pre-season, through the hard yards. They don’t train any less hard than any of the other boys.
“It’s just the nature of our sport, and something we’ve got used to over the years. It’s not good for the boys left out, but the good thing for them is they’ll be the better for their experience in the squad. The majority who went back to their clubs are young boys and their time will come. It will be good learning for them.”
Laidlaw said the fact he now plays his club rugby in England makes the more novel experience of playing at Murrayfield even more special.
“Yes, I’m very much looking forward to getting back to Murrayfield to play. We’ve got a record crowd in this weekend, so that’s brilliant for us to hear.
“It’s really encouraging: now we’ve got to put in the performance to merit the people coming along.”
Cotter will name Saturday’s starting XV to face Italy tomorrow.