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Brighter outlook for Laidlaw as cloud of uncertainty lifts

Spring might be a time of change and renewal, but the messy business of changing and renewing contracts does not make Scott Johnson's job any easier at this time of year.

Dave Denton returns to the starting line-up having made an impression from the bench against Italy. Picture: SNS
Dave Denton returns to the starting line-up having made an impression from the bench against Italy. Picture: SNS

While the Scotland coach tries to knock his team into shape, a number of his players have been operating under clouds of uncertainty about where their futures lie.

Confirmation that Edinburgh scrum-half Greig Laidlaw will join Gloucester at the end of this season might serve to remove the element of doubt from the mind of one of those players at least, but there is bound to be speculation that the 28-year-old Borderer's indifferent form for Scotland in recent weeks has owed something to the distractions that inevitably come with trying to strike the best deals.

Gloucester have signed Laidlaw as a replacement for their Leicester-bound fly-half Freddie Burns, a player whose own form collapsed while negotiations went on around him. Laidlaw has always seemed pretty robust - witness his ability to kick a nerveless goal just moments after sending a kick wide - but there is little doubt he was well short of his best even as the Scots got their RBS 6 Nations campaign into gear with a precious win over Italy 10 days ago.

Johnson clearly hopes Laidlaw will be revived by having the weight of employment concerns off his mind as he prepares to face France at Murrayfield on Saturday. On the evidence of what happened in the Stadio Olimpico, the case for selecting Chris Cusiter, who energised the Scots when he came on against Italy, was overwhelming. Having already made three changes to the XV, perhaps the clincher was that making four would be a strange response to what was, after all, Scotland's first away win in the championship for four years.

Johnson was certainly pleased that Laidlaw has his immediate future worked out. "I'm glad he's got it resolved for his own peace of mind and he can go off and be a great addition to Gloucester," said the Australian. "It's a good move for him now."

As Cusiter is also heading south - to Sale - in a few months' time, some fans might be forgiven for wondering what's so good about losing the country's top two scrum-halves. However, Johnson explained that Scotland could benefit long term from Laidlaw widening his rugby education and from chances opening up for others.

"Sometimes you see players come through and they need different things," said Johnson. "Greig's an aspirant coach and I think he'll be a wonderful coach for Scotland in the next period. I'm all for players seeing different settings and developing as players and as future coaches. They see how other things are done. And we're pretty strong on the ground with young 9s coming through, certainly here at Edinburgh."

Laidlaw seemed to agree. "At this stage of my career this is a fantastic opportunity and challenge for me," he said. "I've thoroughly enjoyed my time with Edinburgh to date, but this is a chance to test myself in a new environment. Gloucester impressed me from the off - the stadium, the facilities, the heritage and history of the club. A number of my Scotland team-mates have played for Gloucester and they had nothing but good things to say about the club."

Laidlaw/Cusiter apart, the players who added most as replacements in Rome have been promoted to the starting line-up. Geoff Cross had a steadying effect on the scrum - and possibly referee Steve Walsh as well - when he took over from Moray Low late in the first half, while Dave Denton brought a characteristic blast of raw power when he came on.

After his impressive display against England two weeks earlier, Denon's omission against Italy had seemed mystifying, although Johnson made it clear he wanted ball players more than ball carriers. Denton, for his part, believes he can be both.

"There are areas of my game that I need to work on but, in the short term, if I keep doing what I'm good at, getting us over the gain line and putting in a few shots here and there, I think my place in the team will be merited,"said Denton. "I think the main message I got for the Italy game was that there was going to be a change in our game plan - and that my game didn't particularly suit it.

"My argument was that I can change the way I play. But, if you're looking to get consistency in a team, which is a big thing for us, you can't have players chopping and changing how they play. Although I was frustrated, I understood Johnno's decision. And, if there is one luxury we've got in this team, it's strength in the back row."

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