Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery and Scotland have copied one of France’s most successful rugby characters: “le petit general”.
Some will remember the likes of Jerome Gallion and Pierre Berbizier, and more recently the French have fielded puppet-masters in the form of Freddie Michalak, Jean-Baptiste Elissalde and Morgan Parra, men who could direct their heavy traffic with no more than a raised eyebrow. Many of them shouldered the added pressure that comes with kicking at goal.
Rugby is a game of physical freaks but yesterday the smallest man in the Scotland squad proved that there is a place for brains alongside all that brawn. Scotland’s own little general Greig Laidlaw equalled David Sole’s record by captaining the team 25 times.
He may be well behind Sole in terms of honours won, but ask yourself who has had the easier task. Sole famously led Scotland to the Grand Slam in 1990 but he had in his side the former Lions’ captain Findlay Calder and the next one Gavin Hastings, to help him out.
In contrast, Laidlaw has led a young Scotland squad through some pretty testing times. The team went into yesterday’s game knowing that, had they lost it, they would have broken the record number of successive Six Nations losses at home. They sidestepped that ignominy and if yesterday’s result does portend a rise in Scotland’s fortunes then it seems only right that Laidlaw should be the one who leads the side out of the wilderness.
He is not known for his physical contribution to the squad but needs must and in the opening exchanges Laidlaw jumped out of defensive line to halt one French attack by wrapping up man and ball even if he had to jump up to do so.
He entered this weekend of action as the highest points scorer in the tournament with 41 and he added another 14 yesterday. When he fluffed the tricky conversion of Stuart Hogg’s try yesterday the surprise among the crowd was palpable, so rarely does he miss. He quickly made amends by converting Duncan Taylor’s try beautifully from the opposite touchline.
But the modern captain has more to do than his predecessors and Laidlaw is one of the best at communicating with the referee in a way that keeps him onside. He doesn’t rant or shout, instead he just points things out in such a way that the whistleblower is almost grateful for the extra pair of eyes. He did exactly that at the start of the second half when, instead of making a song and dance, he just tapped repeatedly on a French body that was lying offside and Glen Jackson took the bait… an easy exit for Scotland.
When Scotland were on the ropes in the second half he sprinted up on Francois Trinh-Duc and knocked the ball from the French stand-off’s grasp for Alex Dunbar to collect and lift the siege. When Scotland went on the attack, his long pass picked out Tim Visser who scored in the left-hand corner to give the Scots some breathing space. He will break Sole’s record next Saturday in Dublin and is well worthy of the honour.
If Laidlaw is the brains of the operation, then the Scotland front row are fast becoming the muscle. When you absolutely, positively have to earn a penalty, turn to the set scrum.
The first scrum didn’t arrive until almost a quarter of the game had come and gone, but when it finally arrived the Scots won a penalty and kicked three points to take the lead for the first time. France won a free kick at the second scrum because the Scots went early. Normal service was quickly resumed and the home team won good possession at the next scrum and a penalty at the one after that. Scotland won another penalty at the first scrum of the second half, Laidlaw adding three, and only then at the seventh scrum did France win a penalty back.
Having seen off Rabah Slimini, Scotland loosehead Alasdair Dickinson had to deal with the 22-stone giant Uini Atonio in the final quarter. Scotland won a free kick at the first scrum and a penalty, for three points to make the game safe, at the second.
WP Nel is a hugely important anchor on the tighthead side but Dickinson deserves more kudos than he gets because his aggression wins the day. The poor man was picked out of position in the number three shirt in Paris way back in 2009 when he had a torrid time of it in the Stade de France, so yesterday must have been sweet revenge.
It might not suit Rory Sutherland, who has now spent two whole Tests on the bench without winning his first international cap, but that only underlines Dickinson’s importance to this team.