Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw believes the way his team perform in their first Rugby World Cup warm-up match against Ireland in just over a fortnight is crucial – and it could set the tone for the coming months.
Since the beginning of June, former Edinburgh favourite Laidlaw and his international team mates have been in a pre-World Cup training camp and, after a few days off next week, they will soon begin the build-up to the Dublin clash on August 15.
The clash with the Irish is one of four warm-up games lined up with the Scots also facing Italy (twice) and France before a trimmed-down 31-man squad heads for the World Cup opener with Japan at Gloucester on September 23.
Every one of the 47 players currently trying to impress head coach Vern Cotter is set to feature in at least one of the four friendly encounters.
And, far from seeing them as simply practice matches, scrum-half Laidlaw, 29, knows that results are important too – especially given that Scotland lost heavily to Ireland in their last competitive match back in March.
“The warm-up games are very important for Scotland,” he said.
“Our first game is away to the Six Nations champions and that is going to be a tough one. The players who are selected will need to stick their hands up and it should count in our favour that everyone will be gunning to try and get into that World Cup squad.
“That match will be a good marker to see where we have improved since the Six Nations.
“We are certainly training consistently better which has probably been one of the problems in the past. We need to make sure we take that forward and deliver it in the games.
“Coming off the back of a poor Six Nations, we have had to improve quickly. The main thing to come out of the camp is that we needed to develop our skill set and I think we’ve done that.
“In the Six Nations, we probably played for fifty or sixty minutes in games with a high-quality offloading game that put teams under a bit of strain, but I think then we just came up short in the last twenty or thirty minutes in a couple of games. Training has been tailored towards fixing that.”
Meanwhile, Laidlaw has defended uncapped John Hardie’s inclusion in the training squad, stating that he deserves a chance to show everyone what he can do.
When Scotland head coach Vern Cotter drafted New Zealand-born back-row Hardie into his squad a fortnight ago many supporters raised concerns about him being given the nod ahead of the likes of Edinburgh Rugby’s Roddy Grant.
Laidlaw said: “Every other nation in the world looks at different players and Vern obviously sees something in John that he likes.
“Vern obviously told us that John was coming over, but he does ask our opinion. It’s the way of the world and, if Vern wants to have a look at him and he is Scottish qualified, then that’s what he’s allowed to do.
“The coach has said all along that if he’s not good enough then he won’t play; if he is good then he will play – it’s the same throughout the squad.
“If you look through the whole squad, there is competition for places and that can only be a good thing for Scotland. We only have the two pro teams, so the more good players who are up for selection the better.”
When the Scots do eventually set off for the showpiece event in mid-September, Laidlaw is looking forward to the opportunity to play for his country at his own club ground.
Looking ahead to the Pool B opener against Eddie Jones’ Japanese outfit, Laidlaw stated: “Kingsholm itself is a fantastic stadium to play rugby in and hopefully Gloucester fans will take to our side, even though Japan will be playing in their favourite cherry and white colours.”