Six Nations: Countering drift defence the key to unleashing Scotland’s dangerous backs, says Greig Laidlaw

HAVING taken to the French style of switching between scrum-half and stand-off like a duck to water, Greig Laidlaw is hopeful that Scotland can beat France at their own game tomorrow.

The versatile half-back was a key figure when Edinburgh doused the fire of Racing Metro in the Heineken Cup, starting at scrum-half in the unbelievable Murrayfield encounter and shifting to the fly-half role as the Scots roared back from being 24 points down to score four tries and win 48-47, Laidlaw striking the match-winning conversion.

The return in Paris was a much tighter affair, Laidlaw starting at stand-off and reverting to scrum-half in the last quarter. He levelled the scores at 24-24 with a penalty before feeding Phil Godman to slot the match-winning drop-goal in the last seconds.

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Contrasting that experience with this weekend’s, Laidlaw said: “We can take a lot from that. They [France] defend very similarly [to Racing]; very tight and using the drift.

“But we need to be very wary because we were close to being hammered by 60 points at home by Racing Metro. It didn’t turn out that way, but on a different day it could have been and that’s the fine margins we’re working on. If they give us that space to play there’s no reason why we can’t go out there this weekend and reproduce a game, not exactly like that – I don’t know if there will ever be another game like that – but playing that way, in the wider channels.

“They have a huge pack and will be looking to scrum us, as Racing did at home [in Paris] – they targeted us there – but I’ve got every confidence that the boys will hold the scrum up and give us the ball we want.”

The half-back dynamic is intriguing this weekend as Morgan Parra reverts to his scrum-half berth after a run at stand-off in the World Cup, with the more typical fly-half in Francois Trinh-Duc outside him. In the home ranks, Laidlaw is paired for the first time from the start with his club scrum-half Mike Blair, who replaces Chris Cusiter in the starting line-up, and, while the Borderer enjoyed playing with Cusiter, he acknowledged that there is greater familiarity with Blair.

The two have enjoyed taking advantage of the fact Blair, as a heads-up kind of player, also has skills suited to the pivotal role and Laidlaw obviously retains a scrum-half’s nose for the breakdown, which was evident when the latter told the former to stand back as he dived into the melee on the Welsh line two weeks ago to pick up the ball and dive over for his try.

“I feel as though I’m getting in the groove,” Laidlaw said, “and I’ve enjoyed playing with Mike. He’s a very skilful player and he likes to get into first receiver [stand-off], and is always telling me to get in at nine as well, but that’s a good thing for Scotland if we can get it right because I can get in there too and keep the speed of the ball that we want to be playing with.

“That’s where the try [against Wales] came from. It just happened that I ended up there and managed to score the try, which was pleasing for myself. It is a very French thing, with guys like Morgan Parra doing it. But hopefully now I can turn it into a Scottish thing.”

How Blair and Laidlaw maintain the tempo in the Scottish attack, and vary their point of attack, will be integral to Scotland’s chances of victory tomorrow. While still suffocating at times, with Aurelien Rougerie always eager to fly up and close off passes wide, Laidlaw believes France’s drift style of defence could provide opportunity to attack if Scotland are solid in the scrum and defend well, and he can bring the backs into the game.

“This is a fresh challenge,” he said. “They are quite tight in defence at times and, hopefully, that will play into our hands and give us a bit of space and let us get our wingers into the game.

“When you play the French you need to be very wary of counter-attack ball. If you turn the ball over they’ll go from anywhere on the field. Their players in the back three are very dangerous runners and we have to be on our toes this weekend.

“But we have dangerous runners out wide and young Hoggy [Stuart Hogg] has shown what he’s capable of down in Wales. We’re looking to get the ball in his hands as much as we can and play in these wider channels and hopefully that will break the game up.

“He’s the form player in Scotland, isn’t he? He deserves his place and I hope he can bring that confidence, because he should be confident in his abilities. I think that youthful exuberance can rub off. Hopefully, some of the older guys will get a lift off that. I don’t know if they’re needing it, but he comes in and does his stuff and it picks everyone up round about him.”

Asked jokingly whether that was just him sticking up for his fellow Borderer, Laidlaw retorted: “Nah, he’s from Hawick at the end of the day.”

After their showing in Wales, there is a sense that Laidlaw’s versatile skills and these two Border rugby brains could begin to effect a turnaround in Scottish fortunes.