Scotland skipper Greig Laidlaw gave an insight into the closeness of his relationship with national coach Vern Cotter and said the players were keen to give him the best possible send-off over the course of his last eight Tests in charge.
Following this month’s three home autumn Tests against Australia, Argentina and Georgia, Cotter will depart for a return to France with Montpellier after the Six Nations as Gregor Townsend takes the Scotland reins.
At the start of Scotland’s training camp at Heriot-Watt University’s state-of-the-art Oriam centre, Laidlaw spoke of his respect for Cotter and how he has helped his game and advised him on his move to the Kiwi’s former club Clermont-Auvergne, who the scrum-half will join from Gloucester at the end of the season.
“I talked to Vern,” said the 31-year-old when asked about his upcoming move to the French Top 14. “I don’t think it is any secret that I am a big admirer of him in terms of how he’s helped me with my game and how he’s helped the team, so, yeah, I got his opinion on a few things. He’s obviously spent a lot of time in that part of the world so he was helpful for me in that sense.”
Laidlaw insisted that there was no chance of any end-of-an era malaise.
“Credit to the man Vern is, he’s extremely focused on all things rugby and he’s not mentioned anything else,” said the 53-times capped former Jed-Forest and Edinburgh man. “All Vern wants to do is win games of rugby. As a player group we understand that’s the way of the world, things happen which are out of our control, so we’re very focused on giving Vern a good last eight Tests.
“We want to do well, we always want to do well and always want to win. When the time comes, the boys will definitely thank Vern for what he’s done for us as a group and as individuals.
“Things happen within the game and Scottish Rugby made it clear they want a Scottish coach in there and they’ve done that, and Gregor’s had success in the recent past with Glasgow and he’s done a good job there. They feel that the time is right and it’s the decision they made so we’ll go with that.”
There had been reports that Clermont were perhaps keen for Laidlaw to quit international rugby as part of the deal, but that was never going to happen according to the man who has now been established as the team’s leader for a number of years and was nominated for World Player of the Year in 2015.
“To be fair to them they were pretty open from the outset,” said Laidlaw. “Morgan Parra’s there and he’s not in the French squad at the moment. They were open at the start, they wanted me to go there and it was one of the stipulations for me, that I keep playing for Scotland at this moment in time. We were able to come to an agreement, so it’s worked out for me.”
Laidlaw admits playing in France is something he is greatly looking forward to and added: “I’m really excited, you look at the way they’re playing at the moment in the Champions Cup and the Top 14, they’re playing a great brand of rugby.
“It’s the chance to go into a different league again. I’ve played the Pro12 and the Premiership and I think I’d have regretted it for the rest of my career and probably the rest of my life if I hadn’t taken this opportunity.
“They’ve got a great facility and the make-up of the players they have there it can only further develop me as a player.
“With Morgan Parra being there, I’m not going to play 80 minutes week in week out.
“I’m playing a lot of rugby at the moment down at Gloucester. So that competition for a place will make me a better player and, in terms of not playing every week, it’s got to be good for a player, none of us are getting any younger.”
Gloucester team-mate Matt Scott was one of the surprise omissions from Cotter’s squad and Laidlaw revealed that it has come as a blow to the in-form centre.
“I’ve spoken to him and he’s disappointed as any player would be,” said Laidlaw. “Credit to him, this is the best rugby I’ve seen him play. You look at our squad we’ve got strong centres and it’s a position that’s strongly contested, and they feel at this moment Matty needs to develop things in his game.
“If he keeps playing the way he is he’ll be hard to leave out for the Six Nations. He’s been on fire to be fair for Gloucester, six tries in seven games, he’s really enjoying the environment and he just needs to keep doing it.
“He was pretty down when he spoke to me but he just needs to get back on the field and play well for Gloucester.”
Of course the meeting with Australia on 12 November brings the obvious questions about the last encounter between the nations – that harrowing defeat in the Rugby World Cup quarter-final at Twickenham, when South African referee Craig Joubert awarded the controversial late penalty that allowed the Wallabies a 35-34 win.
“It’ll be a bit strange, the first time playing against them again,” admitted Laidlaw. “But the way that unfolded, it wasn’t the Australians, was it? It’s nothing to do with them. We can’t get caught up in that moment, we can use it, but it could come back to haunt us a little bit.
“We need to stay in the moment, play what we see in front of us. We’re going in with a strong gameplan and we will have a few surprises for them. We can start the game well, hopefully it’ll go to the back of our minds. If we turn them over this time it’ll make it that little bit easier.
“Nothing will ever make up for it, the chance to be in a [World Cup] semi-final was massive, and we talked about that as a group of players, it was only them who had that opportunity.
“You look at the squad now and there’s a few players who played that day who are not in the squad now. It’s always changing but we want to win, to beat good opposition and we have another crack against Australia who’ve been in a bit of a sticky patch. In their last couple of games they’re starting to play a lot better and they’ll be coming across here looking to get things moving themselves.”
There is a general feeling that the current Australia team is weaker than the Wallaby side that reached the World Cup final in 2015 and pushed the All Blacks in a competitive final.
Laidlaw agrees there is an opportunity but stresses that there is a risk of underestimating one of the great rugby superpowers.
“They’ve been struggling a little in that they’ve not been winning games consistently,” said Laidlaw.
“We feel the start of the game is going to be key, if we start well and get in amongst them, pull a few surprises to get us on the front foot we can grow confidence from there, hopefully they’ll start to think `here we are again, we’re in a little bit of trouble’ and we can grow arms and legs. A strong foothold in that first 20 minutes we’ll be right in the hunt.”