Kelly Brown will lead his team into what is locally known as the “Shark Tank” on Saturday, the King’s Park home of the former Natal Sharks in Durban, and so they warmed up for their opening Castle Lager Test Series match with Samoa by diving in among the genuine sea-dwelling beasts.
The sight of Brown, Jim Hamilton and Al Kellock, among the tallest members of the Scotland squad, inside a small cage might have seemed appetising to any self-respecting great white, not to mention the morsel value of scrum-half Greig Laidlaw and some front rows, but as they returned to land from the early-morning dive, Brown’s focus was swiftly turning to the real fight he expects to ensue on dry land on Saturday afternoon.
“It was an awesome experience,” he said, “and it was great to get a bit of downtime as we work hard. There were about 15 or 20 sharks around us and they were pretty big but, as soon as you got into the cage, there was a guy outside the gate taking photos, and then you start to think ‘this is not going to be as dangerous as I first thought’. It was good to have a break because the build-up for the tournament is pretty intense on the field, and it has to be because this is going to be a tough few weeks.”
Having suffered a serious leg break, Brown missed the narrow win over Samoa in Apia last year, Rob Harley’s late try and Laidlaw’s conversion sealing a 17-16 victory, but he has enough experience of playing against and with Samoans to expect more of the form which accounted for Wales in Cardiff last year, almost claimed the scalp of France and propelled the South Sea Islanders up to seventh in the world rankings.
“The last time I played against Samoa was up in Aberdeen and we won, but it was the last kick of the game there too [Ruaridh Jackson], so we know it will be incredibly tough. We are upbeat and looking forward to it because we know we have beaten them in the past and that can only be a good thing.”
Greig Laidlaw is well used to being the hinge in the Scotland team after two years of flitting between scrum-half and stand-off. He became Scotland’s first-choice hinge through 2012 because the team needed go-forward and control in a way that no-one else seemed able to provide.
The Borderer is back in his familiar No 9 jersey now, with he and Scotland hoping that they might have uncovered a new contender to the role in Tom Heathcote, Laidlaw’s fourth fly-half partner in just 18 Test matches, but he is likely to remain the reliable hinge of the team as he helps the Inverness-born 21-year-old through his first international start.
“I probably will talk to him and work with him a little bit more with it being Tom’s first start,” Laidlaw acknowledged, “but he’s looked good in training and is a quality player, which is why he’s here.
“With [Greig] Tonksy in there, who has a left peg, we can share the kicking duties between the three of us.” Having played for Scotland at stand-off and suffered a fair share of mental and physical pain for the cause, Laidlaw is best placed to be able to guide a Test newcomer through a game in front of an expected 30,000 supporters and facing the intensity of a Samoan defence. He acknowledged that that spell one place out had given him a fresh appreciation of the demands of an international “hinge”.
“I do have an idea of what he will be going through,” he said. “Playing stand-off definitely gives me a much better understanding of the pressures a Test match brings to a stand-off. If the ball is slow I’ll probably not ship it to the ten so much as I might have in the past. I’ll take it on myself or use the forwards to regenerate. With slow ball, if you have a blitz defence coming at you, it is not a very fun place to be. I’ll also probably take more of the kicking duties on myself. If you are kicking off the back foot, that’s when you tend to get charge downs, and the stand-off is the one who gets the criticism when it maybe wasn’t his fault.” But, underlining the fact that even players with caps are not necessarily seasoned veterans, this is Laidlaw’s first visit to South Africa. He was due to be part of the Scotland Under-19s Junior World Championship campaign but was forced to have surgery on a serious knee injury instead.
He insisted that he loved the experience of new cities and stadia, and was already revelling in the unique colourful domination of rugby in the media and among supporters on the streets, but when it comes to Scottish rugby he is pleased to see something stay the same for the time being – the position of Scott Johnson as coach, with confirmation that Vern Cotter will not be joining up until next summer.
“I think Scott’s a really good coach and he’s done a good job for us. I want to repay him again with another Test win come the weekend. Obviously, Vern is coming in a year’s time, but that makes no difference to us. As players, we are working with the great coaching team at the moment, and when he comes Vern can only help.”