GREIG Laidlaw is confident that Scotland can still finish the Six Nations strongly after losing their last two matches, provided they sort out a couple of basic flaws in their game. The triumph of that first win at Twickenham in 38 years may feel a long way in the past following narrow defeats by Wales and Ireland, but the former national captain believes the squad can take heart from the many things that have gone right in all their games.

Now 35, Laidlaw retired from Test rugby after the 2019 World Cup, and is currently a few games into his first season in Japan with NTT Shining Arcs. Given his leadership qualities often made the difference between victory and defeat for Scotland, when he watches the team’s matches on TV he still feels the old urge to be out there and make the difference. However, he remains convinced that he took the right decisions at the right time, first to retire from Scotland duty and then to leave French club rugby for a new life in the far east.

“I’m always going to say I could probably do a job, but I’m not getting any younger,” the 76-times-capped scrum-half said yesterday. “That was the beauty of me taking my own decision, I guess. Not everybody has the ability to do that. That was one of the things I wanted to be able to control. I loved playing for Scotland and I’d obviously love to be able to still play for the team.

“Listen, I don’t think they’re far away. The boys will be frustrated, and I’ve talked to a few of them, but they just need to look at their performances to realise they really aren’t far away. I think the forward pack is coming together and keeping them in games. It’s up to the boys now to finish well in the last couple of games after starting brilliantly against England.”

Scotland will still be favourites to beat Italy at Murrayfield on Saturday despite losing their last two matches, but getting the better of France in Paris the following week looks like a much taller order. However, Laidlaw believes that his old team play with exactly the sort of style that can worry the French - provided, of course, that they rectify some of the areas of their game that misfired badly against the Irish. 

“Firstly, certainly at Test match level, you’ve got to fix the simple things, so Scotland will obviously look at their lineout, that’s probably the first area,” he continued. “And then the discipline. If they could also be a little bit more patient in their defence. They’re defending well. You need a little bit of luck as well, luck with the referee and the bounce of the ball. 

“As much as France are excellent at the moment, and they’re really dangerous, I don’t think they’ll like playing against a team like Scotland. So when that game rolls around - obviously they’ve got to take care of Italy first - they’ve just got to go out there and be themselves, put in a Scottish performance, and I think they can put pressure on France.”

Based in Ichikawa, a city some 20 kilometres south-east of Tokyo, the Shining Arcs have recorded a win, a draw and two defeats in their four games so far this season in Japan’s Top League. The start to the campaign was delayed because of Covid, but Laidlaw used his enforced rest well by getting to know his new team-mates. Now, with a renewed state of emergency due to be lifted on Sunday, he is looking forward to spending more time socialising with the squad. 

“Hopefully things are going to open up here over the summer and we can spend some time with team-mates. Certainly before the state of emergency things were fairly normal here compared to what it looks like back home in the UK. The restaurants were all open fairly normal hours, so the guys took me along to a few local Japanese restaurants.” 

Although his first months in Japan were disrupted by the pandemic, Laidlaw has adapted pretty smoothly to life in Japan both on and off the pitch as he tries to steer the Shining Arcs up the table and has an important role to play as an ambassador for the league. Part of the reason for that is the fact he had already adapted once before to a different language and culture when he moved to Clermont-Auvergne in France, and, while these are still early days with his new club, he is convinced he made the right move at the right time. 

“So far, so good,” he concluded. “I’m really enjoying the challenge and hopefully I’ve got a couple of decent seasons left in me probably before I hang up my boots.”