Greig Laidlaw: Thirsty for more Heineken
Edinburgh's surprise run last season was a fillip for Scottish rugby, and the captain is keen to repeat it – starting against Saracens today – as he explains to Simon Turnbull
Greig Laidlaw is sitting in one of the suites in Murrayfield's west stand, pen in hand, ready to sign a programme that has been thrust in front of him. "Just put 'Scotland superstar Greig Laidlaw'," someone suggests. The Edinburgh captain laughs in self-deprecation.
They don't do superstars where he happens to come from. Even his uncle, Roy Laidlaw, and that other great scrum-half product of the Jed-Forest club, Gary Armstrong, were never given to considering themselves anything other than honest sons of Jedburgh, the Borders and Caledonia.
Still, the programme on the table is a reminder of the star quality Greig Laidlaw has brought to bear in 2012. It is from the Hunter Stadium, Newcastle – in New South Wales – on 3 June. Laidlaw's last-minute penalty that day, struck into the teeth of a gale, earned Scotland a famous 9-6 victory against Australia.
The meteorological conditions may have been freakish but the result was no fluke. It was reward for a supremely dogged Scottish effort. It was Scotland's first win away from home for three decades against one of the southern hemisphere's big three and a vital shot in the arm after a run of seven defeats that hit the troughs of a first failure to reach the World Cup knockout stages and a Six Nations whitewash.
It was followed up by victories in Fiji and Samoa, and came on the back of Edinburgh's march to the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup towards the end of last season, giving Scottish rugby some forward momentum again. Much of the inspiration for the shift in direction was generated by Edinburgh's unlikely run to the last four in Europe's premier club competition, which starts again for them this season with a Pool 1 home fixture against Saracens at Murrayfield today.
They set out last term with a 20-19 win away to London Irish, then overcame a 44-20 deficit to beat Racing Metro in a 48-47 thriller at home. Guided by the coaching nous of former Ireland scrum-half Michael Bradley, they also beat Cardiff Blues and Irish at home and Racing again in Paris. They couldn't get past Ulster in a Dublin semi-final but beat Toulouse in a memorable Murrayfield quarter-final in April.
Laidlaw kicked the clinching points against the four-times European champions and pulled the strings in splendidly assured fashion. Through the course of the tournament the Borderer, who turns 27 today, metamorphosed from Scotland's fourth-choice scrum-half (behind Chris Cusiter, Mike Blair and Rory Lawson) into the kind of perceptive, probing stand-off for whom his country had been crying out for years.
Given the emergence of Dave Denton and Ross Rennie as back-row dynamos of high pedigree, and the development of back-line talents such as wing Lee Jones and centre Matt Scott, it is fair to say that the Heineken Cup last season refreshed parts of the Scottish game that others couldn't reach. The irony is that Edinburgh wouldn't even have been in the continental mix last term had the qualification procedure now proposed by England's Premiership clubs been in place.
The English elite, and indeed the French, want an end to guaranteed places in the competition for Scottish and Italian clubs. As things stand, Edinburgh and Glasgow, Scotland's two professional clubs, both have automatic qualification. In future, if the English and French have their way, they will have to finish in the top six of the RaboDirect Pro12, the league for the top Celtic and Italian teams.
"I can see where the English and French teams are coming from, if I'm being honest," Laidlaw confesses. "They play in tough leagues from which they have to qualify. For us, at Edinburgh Rugby, it's not our decision, but obviously we love playing in the Heineken Cup.
"We brought something to the competition last year. We have to do that again this year. We have to show that, if we're getting an automatic pick, we've got to be worthy of being there. We also need to make sure our Rabo form is up there, so if it does change then Edinburgh Rugby are still going to be playing in the Heineken Cup."
While they blazed a glorious trail in Europe last season, Edinburgh – who now have the former England flanker Neil Back working with the forwards – failed to fire on the domestic front. They finished second bottom of the Pro12 pile. Six games into the 2012-13 campaign, they stand ninth.
A change to national Heineken Cup qualification would naturally increase the pressure to deliver on the bread-and-butter front.
"I don't think it would be a bad thing in the long run," Laidlaw says. "I think in terms of pushing players on and developing squads that are capable of winning leagues it certainly wouldn't be a bad thing to have that carrot in front of you – to make sure that you need to be up there in the league."
Laidlaw acknowledges how pivotal the Heineken Cup experience was in his personal rugby development last season. "I think it was very important," he says. "There were a lot of tight games and I felt I learnt a lot from managing those games. I really enjoyed the challenge. I felt that improved me as a player, especially as a stand-off."
The challenge for Laidlaw and for Edinburgh in this season's competition will be to back up their Heineken heroics of 2011-12. That is not going to be easy. Their pool includes Munster and Racing Metro, as well as Saracens.
The talk in the Scottish capital this week has been of Sarries heading north looking to bully Edinburgh up front today. The 2011 English champions have already suffered one knock-back, though, Edinburgh having resisted their attempts to switch the return game in January from Watford to Cape Town.
Saracens, of course, have succeeded in arranging for their opening "home" match against Racing to be played in Brussels a week today. For Edinburgh and their star stand-off, though, the priority is ensuring that Heineken Cup games are still played in Scotland – one way or another.
Flower of Scotland: Last season's run
London Irish 19-20 Edinburgh
Edinburgh 48-47 Racing Metro
Cardiff Blues 25-8 Edinburgh
Edinburgh 19-12 Cardiff Blues
Racing Metro 24- 27 Edinburgh
Edinburgh 34- 11 London Irish
* Edinburgh finished top of the pool, one point ahead of Cardiff Blues.
Edinburgh 19-14 Toulouse Mike Blair scored an early try as Edinburgh became first Scottish side to reach Heineken Cup semi-finals.
Ulster 22-19 Edinburgh A valiant effort but Jim Thompson's last-minute try, converted by Greig Laidlow, was not enough in Dublin.
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