Despite three loses from three, seemingly everyone is in agreement that Scotland have deserved more in this year’s Six Nations. The 23-17 loss to France in particular saw Scotland play with real attacking punch, offloading at every opportunity. Free-flowing attacking rugby is something that hasn’t been readily associated with Scotland in recent years but some key personnel changes have allowed them to play with a bit more ambition. Outhalf Greig Laidlaw has been a key part of that.
Tomorrow will only be the 26-year-old’s third start, and fifth cap, for Scotland. The Edinburgh halfback has played much of his rugby at scrumhalf and his first cap came there, as a replacement for Mike Blair in 2010. However, Laidlaw’s involvement with the Scottish Sevens side has helped him develop into the exciting attacking outhalf we have seen in recent weeks. His background at scrumhalf is evident in his quality passing, while his time playing sevens is clear in his elusive running game. Add to that competent place-kicking, and Laidlaw has been impressive for the Scottish.
There is one glaring weakness in Laidlaw’s skill set though and that is his defensive game. At just 12st 8lbs (80kg) and 5′ 9″, he is not the biggest guy, especially in comparison with some of the monsters in international rugby. When he plays at scrumhalf, Laidlaw has far less front-on tackles to make and his size is really not an issue. At outhalf though, Laidlaw has to deal with a lot more traffic. He never looks confident in the tackle.
Ireland must be merciless in their targeting of Laidlaw on Saturday. We have to get our strong carriers in Stephen Ferris, Jamie Heaslip and Donnacha Ryan running at the outhalf whenever they get a chance. Laidlaw often tends to hang out on the wings in phase play as Scotland defend. If that is the case at the Aviva, then we must work the ball wide to give Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble one-on-ones with him.
Wesley Fofana’s try for France in that 23-17 win showed Ireland the way. Laidlaw’s opposite number, Francois Trinh-Duc, far from a physical specimen himself, bounced Laidlaw into the ground to put France on the front foot inside the Scottish 22. From that position, Fofana is hard to stop. Laidlaw’s missed tackle was the key though, putting Scotland into a defensive scramble. If Laidlaw does defend in this channel then Ireland have to repeatedly search him out.
It’s an obvious point to make, but France failed to exploit the weakness to it’s full extent. Apart from that missed tackle, Laidlaw only had to make 3 other tackles in his 50 minutes on the pitch. Wales were a little more ruthless, forcing the outhalf to tackle 10 times, of which he missed 3. It’s a basic tactic to target certain players when you have the ball, but it’s extremely rare to have a player as defensively weak as Laidlaw playing international rugby, so it needs to be highlighted.
The breathless tempo of international rugby can make it difficult to pick out individual players in the opposition defence. Ireland have to make it a team effort, communicating to each other where the outhalf is in the defensive line. Just as countless teams have targeted Ronan O’Gara over the years, we must now do the same to Laidlaw.
*Where else do you see the key battles taking place tomorrow? Do you think Scotland are a real threat to Ireland or do you expect a comfortable win? Comment below with all your views on tomorrow’s game…
Photos courtesy: Craig Marren, Ivan O’Riordan.