Greig Laidlaw’s had a whirlwind last few days but is confident tonight’s European Challenge Cup Final will see him start to peak in perfect time for the forthcoming Lions Tour.
The Scotland captain was the first call-up into the Lions squad last weekend after the withdrawl of Ben Youngs for family reasons just as he made his return from the ankle injury which curtailed his Six Nations season with Scotland.
After attending the Lions’ player day in London on Monday, Laidlaw was right back into preparations for what could be his final game with Gloucester tonight in the Challenge Cup against Stade Francais – he starts on the bench – and back in Edinburgh on his favourite pitch for the final training run yesterday.
Willi Henry, the Kiwi who has captained Gloucester while Laidlaw was battling back from injury, retains the No 9 shirt and the captain’s duties from the start tonight, but David Humphreys, the Cherry-and-Whites’ director of rugby, expects both his scrum-halves to play a crucial role.
“We’re in the fortunate position of having two top-quality nines,” said the former Ireland stand-off. “Greig is coming back from injury, and in a game like the cup final we’re going to need both to play a huge role in winning the trophy.”
Laidlaw’s last act at BT Murrayfield was his triumphant penalty kick that underlined Scotland’s 27-22 win over the Irish back in February, before he suffered an ankle injury half an hour into the second game in Paris which ended his championship.
“The last time I was here it was brilliant,” he admitted. “To be in the Scottish jersey and pick up a big scalp like Ireland, an enjoyable performance but we’re here for different reasons tomorrow.
“The most frustrating thing about the injury was it was right in the middle of the Six Nations, especially in that French game, I felt I could have helped the boys to pull off a good win if I’d be able to stay on the field.
“But you sometimes get injured and you try to make it into a positive. I’ve been able to get in the gym and make gains there in an eight or nine week period that just wouldn’t happen at this time of year. Hopefully that will make me fresh going into the rest of the season and the summer.
“I’m pretty much there now, I started last week and played 55 to 60 minutes, and this week was the best I’ve trained. By the time I get to New Zealand I’ll be 100 per cent for sure.”
Greig hasn’t had much time to digest his Lions call-up but it greatly looking forward to it, and has consulted with both his predecessors from Jedburgh, uncle Roy Laidlaw and Gary Armstrong, about the trip.
“I’ve only played 7s in New Zealand before, and it was something to tick off the list,” he said. “They love their rugby down there, it’s a great culture and it will be great to experience.
“Roy and Gary both have been good, they both understand that the game’s changed and they’re the first to admit that. They just spoke about the experience of playing in NZ and that’s been helpful.
“Roy ended up playing in all four tests in the 1983 tour and he said that was a tough old trip. We just play 10 games this time but they’re all going to be tough.”
But for the Lions call Laidlaw would have been captaining Scotland on their three-test summer tour, Gregor Townsend revealed earlier this week and the player and coach have already talked at length.
“Gregor’s been proactive in wanting to speak to me and get a few ideas which was a nice thing to do,” he said.
“He called me up once things happened with the Lions, but he’s asked for my advice on a few things and he said he’ll call if he needs anything else.”
Laidlaw will have at least one more game with Gloucester – they would gain entry to the play-off competition for next year’s European Champions Cup if they win tonight – before he leaves for Saturday’s finalists Clermont-Auvergne in the summer, and he’s determined that will happen.
We have had an up and down season at Gloucester but winning silverware is what it is all about,” he said.
“We will need a big effort as we are playing a quality team. Since Stade got the news they won’t be merging with Racing they’ve used it as a catalyst and have been playing some good rugby.
“It is a wonderful track out there and we have had a good preparation week. If we take that momentum into the game we have a chance of winning.”
Laidlaw’s fellow Scotland international Matt Scott starts at outside centre for Glolucester, with the club’s other Lion Ross Moriarty in the back row.
Gloucester Rugby: Tom Marshall; Charlie Sharples, Matt Scott, Mark Atkinson, Jonny May; Billy Burns, Willi Heinz (capt); Josh Hohneck, Richard Hibbard, John Afoa; Tom Savage, Jeremy Thrush; Ross Moriarty, Lewis Ludlow, Ben Morgan
Replacements: Darren Dawidiuk, Yann Thomas, Paddy McAllister, Mariano Galarza, Freddie Clarke, Greig Laidlaw, Billy Twelvetrees, Henry Trinder.
Stade Français Paris: Hugo Bonneval; Waisea Vuidarvuwalu, Geoffrey Doumayrou, Jonathan Danty, Djibril Camara; Jules Plisson, Will Genia; Heinke Van der Merwe, Remi Bonfils, Rabah Slimani; Hugh Pyle, Paul Gabrillagues; Antoine Burban, Jonathan Ross, Sergio Parisse (capt)
Replacements: Laurent Panis, Zurabi Zhvania, Paul Alo Emile, Willem Alberts, Raphael Lakafia, Julien Dupuy, Morné Steyn, Jérémy Sinzelle.