Greig Laidlaw would have been forgiven for feeling like he was being portrayed as a stern man from Health & Safety armed with a big clipboard – and if he wasn’t going to close down Scotland’s circus of rugby then there would certainly be curbs on its more daredevil stunts.
Last weekend the circus had gone to Wales and the wheels had come off those brightly-painted wagons. Badly. So yesterday the trapeze acts were having to use three nets, the human cannonballs were only allowed to travel the length of a shortened lineout – and there would be no more krayzee passing from wing to wing, everyone spinning plates simultaneously.
In the age-old struggle between pragmatism and romanticism it seemed that pragmaticism had won with Laidlaw’s return to the team. Would he mind being almost characterised as Captain No-Fun, even a direct descendant of the great killjoy himself, John Knox? If he did, then you wanted him, first attack, to spin the ball on his nose before flipping it to Finn Russell. Just to prove that he could. Just to remind the crowd that there’s more to his game than calmness and control.
This was Laidlaw’s 60th appearance in dark blue but, rather earlier than he would have liked, the scrum-half had to use all his experience to ensure heads stayed cool round about him as the team gave up a try even earlier than they’d done the previous week. In the second minute France winger Teddy Thomas once again demonstrated he has nothing in common with the gap-toothed, golly-gosh bounder Terry-Thomas from all those hoary 1950s comedies by embarking on a dancing run which took him right past Finn Russell – and by the time he reached Stuart Hogg he was pretty much unstoppable. Thomas did something similar against Ireland in Les Bleus’ opening defeat last weekend so Scotland can’t say they weren’t warned.
The start of the Six Nations for the Scots had prompted extreme reactions. Extreme optimism, which gave way to extreme disappointment, and then an extreme view of Laidlaw’s worth to the team. Yes, he would bring canny game management, but this didn’t make him dull, far from it.
He promised to “keep tabs” on Russell and stop his fellow half-back getting “too excited” and there didn’t seem much to dispute about that aim either. Once again Russell wasn’t at his most scintillating, with his kicking awry, but the No 10 found the pass to set up Sean Maitland’s seventh international try and from way out wide Laidlaw kicked a fine conversion.
Thomas, it has to be said, had hacked the ball into touch much like a moustache-twirling cad would have done to begin the pressure which led to the score. But when the flyer was given another sight of the Scottish line he produced a much more studied kick and while Laidlaw was the cover, not even the dependable scrum-half could have read the mad bounce, and the speedster scored again.
Back came the home side with Laidlaw just failing to keep hold of Tommy Seymour’s overhead pass in a charge up the right. But when the action switched to the opposite flank Laidlaw was there to set up Huw Jones. The pass wasn’t the longest attempted yesterday and there weren’t bells on it, but it was perfectly timed and despatched, the centre touching down the eighth time in Scotland’s colours.
Laidlaw was kicking well, too, as was his opposite number, Maxime Machenaud. The France scrum-half didn’t re-appear for the second half so Laidlaw traded penalties with replacement Baptiste Serin to keep the Scots in touch.
Dangerman Thomas – the “s” is silent – set off on a break through the middle and was absolutely flattened by Grant Gilchrist. But this was the cue for a burst of French pressure and Scotland were fortunate it only resulted in the concession of another three points. The sizable Gallic contingent in the crowd belted out La Marseillaise as Serin slotted his kick and they must have sensed their team could prevail in the tight, try-less second period, only for Scotland to finally draw level for the first time since the opening minute. This penalty was slightly longer, and the pressure must have been greater on Laidlaw, but his little right leg – exactly the same length as his left, by the way – provided the required dunt.
France had been disciplined – not a word which seems to translate into their language too well – but seemed to be tiring, especially when Gregor Townsend sent on David Denton and Ben Toolis and the brawny pair immediately started crashing through the heart of the visitors’ defence.
In the flurry of changes it was Russell who was replaced by Ali Price so Laidlaw moved across to stand-off.
There was no way he was coming off, not if his kicking could squeeze Scotland ahead and his sangfroid – an excellent French word – could keep them there through the closing minutes.
The forwards cranked up the pressure and he duly delivered. Roll, up, roll up! Marvel at Greig Laidlaw’s composure and his unerring boot!