Plenty has happened since Greig Laidlaw was last on the BT Murrayfield pitch, some of it not very pleasant, but the Scotland skipper was all smiles as he took part in the Gloucester training ahead of tonight’s European Challenge Cup final against Stade Francais.
There were smiles the last time too as Laidlaw led Scotland to a brilliant win over Ireland on the opening Six Nations weekend but misery followed a week later when an ankle injury sustained in Paris ended his tournament.
However, the former Edinburgh scrum-half reacted to adversity in the tenacious manner you would expect from him and has battled back to fitness ahead of schedule and, last weekend, he earned a call-up to the British and Irish Lions squad when Ben Youngs sadly had to withdraw for family reasons.
Now he has the chance to take part in a European final at the rugby venue he loves most, albeit from the bench after Gloucester director of rugby David Humphreys rewarded Willi Heinz for his able deputising during Laidlaw’s injury. The Kiwi also starts as captain but Humphreys indicated the Scot will have a big part to play in the game.
Gloucester will be looking for the their third Challenge Cup title and Laidlaw his second after he helped the Cherry and Whites beat his old club Edinburgh at Twickenham Stoop two years ago. Scotland centre Matt Scott, who missed that 2015 final through injury, starts for Gloucester tonight after moving from Edinburgh last summer.
For a player who has been fortunate to avoid serious injury for most of his career, that sickener in the Stade de France did come as a bodyblow.
“The most frustrating thing about the injury was it was right in the middle of the Six Nations,” said Laidlaw. “Especially in that French game I felt I could have helped the boys to pull a good win if I’d be able to stay on the field. You get injured and it’s frustrating but you try to make it into a positive. I’ve been able to get in the gym and make gains there in an eight-nine week period that just wouldn’t happen at this time of year. Hopefully that will make me fresh going into the rest of the season.”
It is a season that has plenty left in store for Laidlaw, starting with tonight’s final which, if Gloucester win, will see them enter the play-off system to qualify for the elite Champions Cup next season. Then it will be Lions time.
Laidlaw hopes to help the club he has enjoyed three seasons with back to the top table of Europe but knows he will already have a chance of tasting that as he prepares to join Clermont Auvergne in the summer. The French side face holders Saracens in the Champions Cup final tomorrow and Laidlaw will be sticking around for that.
“I’m going to stay around, yes, stay for an extra day and travel back down on Sunday, so I’ll take in Saturday’s game as well,” he said.
“The schedule then very much depends on what happens with Gloucester. If we win we go into the play-off so I could end up being a couple more weeks down there so we’ll have to wait and see.
“I’m pretty much there [for full match fitness] I started last week and played 55-60 minutes. I’m certainly getting there and this week is about the best I’ve trained. I felt really good this week. By the time I get to New Zealand I’ll be 100 per cent for sure.”
Laidlaw has only ever played sevens in New Zealand and says the chance to play in the world’s No.1 rugby country will definitely be a tick off his “to do list” and that he has already approached his Jedburgh network for some tips.
“I’ve spoken to [his uncle] Roy [Laidlaw] and to Gary [Armstrong] and both have been good, they both understand that the game’s changed and they’re the first to admit that. They just spoke about the experience of playing in NZ and that’s been good.”
Uncle Roy went on the 1983 Lions tour as back-up scrum-half but, after replacing Welshman Terry Holmes in the first Test, went on to play all four in what turned into a rather harrowing whitewash.
“He sure did, and he said that was a tough old tour,” explained Laidlaw. “There’s not four Tests this time but there will be ten tough games.
“Everybody on that tour wants to play the Tests, and there’s a lot of rugby to be played before that. For me, it’s an opportunity to get in there, play well and show what I’m about, put my best foot forward. There’s been nothing from [Lions coach] Warren [Gatland] about roles yet.”
It means Laidlaw misses the Scotland tour of course but he said: “[Scotland head coach] Gregor [Townsend] has been proactive in wanting to speak to me and get a few ideas, which was nice. He called me up and obviously once things happened with the Lions, he’s asked for my advbice on a few things. He said he’ll call if he needs anything at all.”