One of the most enduring images of the 2017 Six Nations is that of Scotland captain, Greig Laidlaw, standing in jubilation, arms outstretched as he watches his kick sail between the uprights to secure an improbable Scottish victory over Ireland. He was on top of the world, playing some of the best rugby of his career, captaining a team that were on the verge of their best season this century.
A year on, he makes his return to the Scotland squad with his position far less assured. Having suffered the cruel fate of an ankle injury in the following match against France, Laidlaw was replaced by Ali Price, who has gone from strength to strength in the number nine shirt.
Price’s relationship with Finn Russell, his club team-mate, as well as his quick service and sniping runs has allowed Scotland to develop their attacking game to a new level, as shown in their 53-24 thrashing of Australia in the autumn.
However, when he got injured, Laidlaw was much more than just a scrum-half for his country, he was their goal kicker, heartbeat and leader. He was at the centre of everything that they did and acted as Vern Cotter’s voice on the field, much in the same way that Dylan Hartley speaks for Eddie Jones in the England camp.
Yet, in the year since his injury, each role has been taken up by another player. Finn Russell has proven himself a more than able goal kicker, scoring 90% of his kicks when he took over the tee in last year’s Six Nations. He has also become the general of the backline, who look far less threatening when devoid of Russell’s supreme attacking talents.
John Barclay has also stepped up valiantly in Laidlaw’s absence to lead the team with aplomb, playing some of the best rugby he has produced in a Scotland shirt in a formidable back-row combination with Hamish Watson and Ryan Wilson.
On top of these players stepping up to fill Laidlaw’s roles in the team, he must also compete to impress a new man at the top. Gregor Townsend’s taking over from Vern Cotter may be the most worrying development for Laidlaw as he tries to get his international career back on track.
Laidlaw was Cotter’s man, throughout his time as Scotland coach he regularly picked Laidlaw as his captain, a general who would play his heart out for the cause and unite his players on the pitch. However, he is still yet to play under Townsend.
This has not because he has been dropped by the new head coach but rather through a series of events that have denied Laidlaw the chance to add to his 58 caps since that game against France.
The first of these was a call-up to the Lions squad after Ben Youngs’ withdrawal. This was probably one of the proudest moments of Laidlaw’s career, giving him the opportunity to represent the most historic team in the world and follow in the footsteps of many of the game’s greats, including his uncle, Roy, who had gone on the 1983 tour.
Yet, it also denied him the chance to join up with Townsend’s first Scotland squad, who, in his absence, defeated Australia for the first time in five years with Russell, Barclay and Price playing starring roles.
This must have been a tough situation for Laidlaw to be in, experiencing every rugby player’s dreams but losing ground on international selection as others thrived while he was away. He, therefore, must have pencilled the Autumn International dates into his diary as the time for his great return to Scottish colours at Murrayfield.
Fate rarely allows paths to run so smoothly and again cruelly struck as Laidlaw fractured his leg playing for his new club, Clermont Auvergne, in October. It must have been a knockout blow for the scrum-half with his anguish only accentuated by seeing Scotland play so well when he would so dearly wish to be on the field himself.
That brings us to this year’s Six Nations. Laidlaw has finally returned to the Scotland squad, but has lost the captaincy to John Barclay. He will work harder than anyone to prove himself to Townsend and try to wrest his shirt back from Price but sadly he may have to accept a reduced role on the bench. Yet, as Danny Care has shown for England, the substitute scrum-half has a key role in influencing games in their closing stages. So, hopefully this well-loved stalwart will prove his doubters wrong and once again lead Scotland to victory at their Murrayfield fortress.
Image courtesy of pleclown