No-one has taken on that role as often, but the last time he led the side was against France in Paris two seasons ago, since when 18 matches have been played, half of them on their home pitch, with eight wins and a solitary narrow loss against New Zealand’s All Blacks a year ago recorded.
That run, which has included wins over Australia, England, France, Ireland and Wales, has in turn generated a new type of pressure since losing to a lower ranked nation in Fiji is now a wholly unacceptable prospect, but Laidlaw can only see positives in that.
“It has a positive effect on the players when that happens. We are well aware of when the stadium sells out so quickly. With all the respect in the world to the Fiji rugby team it would not have sold out a few years ago,” he pointed out.
“Selling out shows the connection we have with the rugby public. They come to see us play and they expect us to win. It is a tremendous feeling for a player to have. It is up to us to go and deliver. That expectation is there, and that’s brilliant. It falls on us as a team and as a collective to perform tomorrow, and we’ve got 100 per cent confidence in each other and in the team that we can perform tomorrow. Is it going to be easy? No it is not. We’ll need to play for 80 minutes and stick to our guns.”
He clearly believes that what has also changed is the maturity of the team’s two most gifted players, Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg, who join him in returning for this match after missing last weekend’s defeat in Wales.
His closest on-field relationship must obviously be with Russell who, like Laidlaw, moved to France this season and the captain believes his half-back partner has benefited as a result of the change of environment.
“You don’t really want to rein in Finn in too much (but) sometimes, I’ll just give him a little look and I think he understands,” Laidlaw said, with a smile. “Sometimes, it’s important in international rugby to say, `when do we play, when do we not play’ and I think Finn’s got a better understanding of that now. Him moving away to a league like the Top 14 will help that.”
Hogg meanwhile led the side to victory last time he played and Laidlaw reckons his fellow Borderer can play an invaluable role as vice-captain this time around following his unexpectedly rapid return from injury.
“Again he’s a real thinker,” said the captain. “He’s got a lot of strengths clearly with his speed and attacking game but that’s something Hoggy’s matured into and he captained the team during the summer. His development has been brilliant and even though he’s still so young, he’s had experience, two Lions tours, Six Nations player of the tournament two years in a row. He’s a great talent and a real thinker too, so for me to have him alongside is brilliant.”
For all the Fijians’s undoubted physical attributes, their coach has admitted that they have had to keep things very basic this week because of their lack of preparation time and Laidlaw reckons that having had much more opportunity to hone their tactics, as well as their technique, should serve his side well.
“If we are smart enough we can out-think in certain areas that could hopefully have a big handle on the game,” he said.
“That is down to the leaders within the team understanding what plays we have planned and when and where to run them.
“I think we have more experience in and around key positions hopefully within the team. We have had that time together, not just over the past couple of weeks, but also over the past couple of years. The partnerships, whether myself and Finn or second rows where Sam (Skinner) is coming in for his first cap and whether it’s Gilko (Grant Gilchrist) speaking to me, through the spine of that team we have a strong connection and we will have to use it.”
What was noticeable on Laidlaw’s return to the side last season was his preparedness to perform a similar function to a football midfielder putting his foot on the ball in order to weigh up options and he will not hesitate to do so again.
“The make-up of that Fiji team suggests to me how we can squeeze them in different ways. We’re not going to be able to run then for 80 minutes, because that’s dangerous because there will be a couple of mistakes and we want to limit that because we don’t want to give them turnover ball,” he noted.
However that is not necessarily at odds with the overall philosophy of seeking to play a high octane game.
“We’ll certainly going to use our forwards and try to use them smartly, but we’re still going to try and shift the ball,” Laidlaw added. “That’s the genetics of this team now, we want to play quick rugby and we’re not going to go away from that. We want to use all areas of the field, but we need to be smart about that tomorrow. And when we do go, we really need to execute.”
Source : HeraldScotland