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 Clermot-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. 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.”
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 ex-Edinburgh 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 November 12 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.”
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.”